In a small room in Stanford’s history building, a small panel discusses media coverage of the 2004 election. The guests are:

A student from Stanford in Government moderates. I’m surprised by the small turnout; there are just a handful of people here so we keep it informal, with the audience shouting out questions and responses.

Like the network heads the other night, I expected the newspaper writers to lean somewhat to the right. Surprisingly, however, it seems that the journalists themselves are rather decent and that most of the pressure comes from the editors.

“The bottom line is that there is truth!” insisted the Post’s VandeHei at one point during the proceedings. VandeHei had looked rather bored most of the time, especially when other people were speaking, but he suddenly became more animated than he’d been all night. “Editors want he said-she said stories, but you need to tell truth to people!” He was on a roll.

“And the blogs! They watch everything — every time you go on any TV show anywhere — and they come after you and they fill up your fax machines and your inboxes and your phone lines — looking back on it it’s sort of funny to watch — but the stuff eventually trickles up to your editors and it can really make your life a pain — they’re a pain in the ass!”

VandeHei seemed to sense he was getting sort of out of control and he stopped himself from saying more.

Afterwards, I talked to him to follow-up. He moved towards the doorway. “You see this door?” he said. “Now I can examine it and say it’s made of wood. And that’s true. And if some other guy comes along and says it’s plastic I can say he’s full of shit. Now those are just the facts.” I think for a second how ironic it would be if the door was plastic and then realize that I agree with VandeHei and shouldn’t be making fun of him. “I mean,” he continues, “editors are sort of stuck with these old news principles that you can’t take a position on things but some stuff is just real. And I think that’s sort of out of date now when you can get news from all sides with everybody’s point of view. I think newspapers have a job to say this stuff is the facts.” He recommends an article in the most recent CJR.

And the blogs? “The problem is that it’s all just so obviously partisan that there’s no value to it.”

VandeHei covered Howard Dean in the beginning and then switched to John Kerry from February to the election. It’s a “great experience to do once.” You need detailed knowledge of the candidate’s positions on the issues and the work is intense. “Felt compelled to delve into the issues,” especially terror and Iraq since it’s post-9/11.

The Times reporter, by contrast, worked on the business section part of the election. Focusing on money and politics, she wrote long profile of Soros and Carville’s business enterprises (her words) and looked for patterns in spending. In this campaign, she says, finance was second because the issues were so dramatic.

The Stanford professor is author of Going Negative. When someone in the audience asks about, he bizarrely insists that ‘analyzing accuracy is elitist because it assumes the public is dumb.’ After all, ‘we don’t factcheck beer ads’. People, he says, instinctively debunk ads of other groups. Reporters shouldn’t do stories on ads, they should do stories on the details of the issues. I think the professor is either insane or trying to be intentionally provocative.

VandeHei responds by defending FactCheck and notes that the President is more important than some beer commercial. Readers don’t have time to fact check all those different claims themselves.

The moderator asks about the horserace coverage. VandeHei says that he writes for Washington, a company town that is extraordinarily political. So they had a long series examining both candidates, but inside intrigue gets the most interest, not the educational political stuff that he personally likes. ‘We try to give as many facts as internal intrigue, but while people tell pollsters they want more issues, I’m not so sure.’ The Times reporter wonders about their effect on the process. After all, they gave Forbes all that attention — what role does the press have?

What about the focus on the negative? VandeHei says that he was in the hall during the scream and he didn’t notice it, but the amazing superficial TV coverage led to larger concerns about the guy being unhinged. Dean’s complaint about negative coverage is just sour grapes — Dean read more coverage about himself than any other candidate. On flights he would read every clipping written about him. On long flights he’d finish and start reading them again. He doesn’t think the press was unfair.

The Times reporter says that the pack mentality means everyone works to stay ahead of the competition, but limited resources force them all to move largely in lockstep. ‘Even in entrepreneurial stuff we all do the same thing.’

VandeHei is uneasy about the missing explosives story. We haven’t heard about it since the election. Republicans thought it was unfair. The Swift Boat stuff would have been unfair too if Kerry hadn’t given ‘a convention speech entirely about being a war hero’. We put a lot of resources on debunking that. We should have focused on the Vietnam protests because that really made people feel icky. The Swift Boat Veterans ads caused Kerry’s internal numbers to tank. It’s a microcosm of his campaign’s internal problems, the disconnect between him and his advisors.

VandeHei says that Rove tried to discredit the media like he did so he could take the wind out of liberal arguments. The Times lady says that ‘we’re the right’s whipping boy but we embraced 9/11! People think there are conspiracy theories, as with the missing weapons thing coming out right before the election, but we just print what we have as soon as we have space.’ And as for those critics on the left, the Times ran hard-hitting stories about aluminum tubes, the cabal in the Justice Department planning Gitmo, the missing weapons. ‘Huge stories and they all slid off Bush.’

VandeHei says that a huge percentage of Republicans don’t believe the Times or the Post and he notes that Bush specifically mentioned the Times during his convention speech. The first two years of Bush coverage was way too positive (he worked at the Wall Street Journal then) so he’s chagrined to see the press called hostile. There is a larger problem of media bias, though, where they run glowing stories about gays but treat Christians as freaks. ‘We’re obsessed with gender diversity but not geographical diversity’. He’s worried people will go to channels that share their interest like FOX and the Washington Times which would be really dangerous since it skews the truth. But the Times lady doesn’t want to pander.

Someone in the audience asks if the press has a responsibility to correct misperceptions. ‘We have to go forward every day,’ the Times lady replies. ‘We can’t have a box that says “Still no WMDs found!”’ And later, ‘it’s not our job to convince people; that would be FOX. It’s not our job to change minds.’ VandeHei says people just have stubborn partisan views. ‘If the parties were reversed, you’d see the Republicans against the war and the Dems for it.’

The Times lady recommends you watch the BBC. The papers are so sensitive about being too liberal they’ve given the Republicans a wide berth because they’re so scared of being unpatriotic.

An audience member asks about repackaging newspaper content. The Times lady says the Sulzbergers are a ‘national treasure’ since they care more about the product than the money, but the Times still needs money, so they’ve got TV, the International Herald-Tribune, and so on. VandeHei says he works with MSNBC,, and XM radio.

Do the editorial pages reduce the paper’s credibility? VandeHei says the firewall is strong at the Wall Street Journal and the Post — he’s never talked to anyone on the editorial staff. The Times lady looks worried; that’s not how it works there. ‘We talk to the editorial staff. Sometimes they’ll write editorials on our stories and we talk to them about it.’

FOX? VandeHei says that there are FOX things in the realm of objective — some of their stuff is ‘no more partisan than Dan Rather’. But the Times lady says that ‘unlike us, FOX has an agenda.’

What about the Mark Halprin memo? (ABCNews political director Mark Halprin wrote a memo rightly noting that they shouldn’t “reflexively and artificially hold both sides ‘equally’ accountable,” for which the right-wing went after him.) VandeHei sees where he’s coming from. ‘We quantified how much more dishonest Bush was and we did the numbers on the ads. But it was stupid for him to put it in writing because it’s just ammo for FOX. We need to quit screwing up!’ Flak about these things ‘poisons all of us, we need to redouble our efforts to be fair despite the forces of bias.’ The Times lady says ‘you look partisan by being honest. Being 50/50 leads you to lie.’

VandeHei says he covered Bush for a day and was shocked to see that Bush was 80% inaccurate, he lied even when it wasn’t necessary. He wanted to take a stopwatch and see just how long Bush spent telling the truth. The Times lady says that would look biased.

VandeHei says you get a totally different perspective on the campaign when you visit a swing state. he went to Wisconsin and it opened his eyes. ‘The ads are so effective and relentless and inescapable.’ The effects showed up by August. The Times lady notes how a cousin from Michigan asked her why New Yorkers hate Bush so much after ‘all he’s done for the city.’ ‘What planet are you on?’ she replied.

posted January 23, 2005 07:33 PM (Education) (3 comments) #


The People Themselves: A Debate
Subject to the Penalty of Death
D.J. Bernstein: The Good News Archive
Pick A Side
In His Own Words
Newspaper Writers on the Election
Stanford: Day 62
Jeff Hawkins on the Brain
Stanford: Day 63
Stanford: Day 64
Stanford: Day 65


Thanks for the writeup, much appreciated! For more on the media coverage from the journalist’s pov, I recommend C-SPANs Washington Journal of Jan 21 (VandeHei (WP), Lytle (Orlando Sentinel), Benedetto (USAToday))

posted by Thorolf Smør at January 24, 2005 11:36 AM #

My god, that’s brilliant… Aaron, Thanks for posting this.

posted by Sylvia Anderson at January 24, 2005 01:01 PM #

Aaron, you wrote

“Like the network heads the other night, I expected the newspaper writers to lean somewhat to the right. Surprisingly, however, it seems that the journalists themselves are rather decent and that most of the pressure comes from the editors.”

In a trenchant article in the current Le Monde Diplomatique, Ignacio Ramonet suggests that the pressure comes, bluntly and brazenly, from even further up in the corporate food chain. Well worth the read.

posted by Thorolf Smør at January 26, 2005 04:33 PM #

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