Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Giving Campaign Handlers Far Too Much Credit

Yesterday, my colleague Bob Gray drew my attention to an interesting item in the latest New York Review of Books. In it, Mark Danner replies to two letters written in response to his (very good) election postmortem in the January 13 issue of the NYRB.

Danner suggests that journalists aren't very good at covering the subtexts of campaign discourse because they're too caught up in "horserace coverage," which includes detailed reporting on the internal machinations of campaign "war rooms." That critique has been around for a while (and is made very well in Thomas Patterson's Out of Order), so in and of itself this wouldn't be noteworthy.

But Danner illustrates the problem with horserace coverage by calling attention to an incident that seems to show journalism's complicity in campaign manipulation. He notes that two prominent stories early in the campaign revealed that the Bush team was reeling from criticism over its first television ads. (One ad used footage of the flag-draped body of a dead fireman being carried away from Ground Zero, prompting complaints from the firefighters union and some families of 9/11 victims.) However, Danner implies that the campaign faked their response to the criticism in order to fuel the controversy over the ads, thereby kicking the story along and giving the ads even more coverage than they would have otherwise received. As evidence, he cites Newsweek's reporting from inside the Bush campaign, which, in exchange for extensive access, was allowed to be published only after the election. That reporting suggests (when juxtaposed with Danner's summary of the earlier stories) that the ad flap was welcome by the Bush team. "So much for the 'inside story,'" writes Danner. For him, this is a perfect example of how

The public, offered the impression that they are being given a pathway into the inner sanctum, in fact is simply offered another constructed story carefully designed to reinforce the kind of attitudes campaign strategists have decided, in the real "behind the scenes" meetings, are critical to their candidate's success.
In fact, the original pieces Danner cites never really claim to show a campaign in crisis; instead, Bush aides freely admit, in each story, to welcoming the attention to their ads and the issues therein. The first piece, a New York Times article from March 5, 2004 does say that the Bush campaign was "scrambling to counter criticism," but it also notes that "Mr. Bush's aides said... the battle over [the ads] could even work to their advantage by focusing new attention on what they said was the president's forceful response to the attacks and the continued threat from terrorists." Furthermore, "They said the controversy had been expected and was serving their aim of changing the debate from Democratic turf like health care and jobs to Mr. Bush's strongest suit, national security." The article cites unnamed Democrats - not Bush campaign insiders - as saying the Bush staff wasn't prepared for the response they got.

The second article, from the March 15, 2004 Newsweek, has "some GOP insiders" and "some GOP strategists" - not Bush insiders or Bush strategists - questioning whether the Bush campaign had made a mistake in running the ads. But when they used campaign sources to comment on the story, those sources "were dismissive and insisted the flap had only strengthened their plan to make 9/11 'a central topic of the campaign.'" Danner wants us to believe that the Bushies had a devious plan to get the media to do their work for them by pretending to be on the ropes when, in fact, they knew all along that controversy would draw attention to their message. But it doesn't seem too devious to publicly acknowledge the effect you hope to (secretly) produce!

Ultimately, I agree with Danner when he argues, "our political campaigns are built largely of... pseudo-events and rely fundamentally on the press and the commentariat to play their necessary part in constructing them and conveying them to the public." But there's another problem with horserace journalism that doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves; namely, it treats campaign operatives as wizards who are so wickedly clever that a wave of their wands casts a spell over even seasoned reporters, not to mention voters. Unfortunately, Danner is guilty of perpetuating that myth with his inaccurate characterization of the 9/11 ad flap.


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