Strange Campaign, Stranger Coverage

This has been a strange election season for me. The last couple times around, 2004 and 2006, I did phone-banking and some other volunteer work. That was in large part due to the fact I wasn’t working for any media organizations during those elections. As I’ve been reminded this year, working for a public radio station anxious to maintain its appearance of even-handedness in political coverage, campaigns are off-limits if you’re working in news.

I’ve got all sorts of thoughts about the wisdom of that policy and what it really accomplishes. I’ll try to get back to those by election day. As I said, though, I actually feel like I’ve been missing something this year. Not that I enjoy calling strangers on the phone so much or intruding into their political decisions. But this is a historic election year, one that people will talk about for generations to come. It’s one of those things you want to say you saw, that you were there for.

I had an appointment with my dentist this morning to fix a broken tooth. On the way in, I caught an NPR segment with Juan Williams. NPR calls him an analyst. He also works for Fox News. How NPR tolerates that and what it implies, I don’t know.

The segment involved one of the Morning Edition anchors, Renee Montagne, debriefing Williams about where the campaigns are right now. Sample passages:

MONTAGNE: OK, final week of the campaign. And here is what we’re hearing from John McCain. Two arguments. His criticism of Barack Obama’s tax policies which he says would amount to a socialist redistribution of wealth and – that’s one of them. Let’s start with that. Has it helped him?

WILLIAMS: I think it has. I mean, that’s why we now have Joe the Plumber, that now iconic figure of the campaign, out on the campaign trail for McCain. The argument is coming from McCain that Senator Obama believes that taxes are too low while Senator McCain believes that spending is too high, and secondly that there is this, you know, effort by the Obama team in terms of wealth redistribution. And McCain is saying that is something that punishes success while McCain is one that’s trying to build an economic system, a tax system, that would reward success. So, that has worked with lots of people who are making money and then led to the argument about exactly who McCain’s team wants to give a tax break to.

Wait! She asks him whether the argument that Obama’s proposals amount to a “socialist redistribution of wealth” are working–and he says they have! But read the rest of his answer: He never justifies that anywhere, except to say that Joe the Plumber is now iconic. Williams’s statement that there is an argument about who McCain would give a tax break to is absurd. As Obama says, in one of the few clearly true pieces of campaign rhetoric out there, McCain hung his hat on the Bush tax policy. And there is not much of an argument about who that helps. It ain’t really Joe the Plumber, either.

There’s more:

MONTAGNE: What about the second argument, McCain’s arguing for divided government, basically, yeah, between the Republicans and the Democrats? Any indication that that is affecting how people are thinking about voting?

WILLIAMS: Well, again, we don’t have hard numbers. But what you do see out on the campaign trail is an awareness that you would have Democrats in control across the board: Senate, House, as well as White House. And that argument has picked up steam because the idea is that – you know what? – it’s not so much that Barack Obama would just be president, but that you would have lots of Democratic committee chairmen and officials – specifically the likes of Nancy Pelosi, someone who’s always been, I think, demonized by the Republicans – in charge pushing very liberal policies on a very liberal president. That argument you hear all over the campaign trail.

Notice that Williams doesn’t even try to put this Democratic Domination argument in McCain’s mouth. He puts it out there himself as something you “see out on the campaign trail.” And it is “picking up steam.” In a world awash with hard numbers on the race, he can’t find any, or he lacks the wit to interpret them. Amidst his characterization of the “likes of Nancy Pelosi,” “very liberal policies,” and “a very liberal president,” he doesn’t even try to answer the question — which was how McCain’s tactic is affecting voters. So, Montaigne had to ask it again, and he was forced to answer. Lamely:

MONTAGNE: But you say people are swayed by that?

WILLIAMS: I don’t know that they’re swayed by it. What is evident is that the McCain campaign believes, Renee, that they can use that argument to sway votes in these final days before the election. So they believe it is effective.

Juan wasn’t done analyzing. Montaigne asked him about Obama’s TV spot for Wednesday night. Again, he takes his time getting around to the answer:

WILLIAMS: You know, this is so rare, Renee. You got to go back to Ross Perot to see anything like it. And of course, the amount of money being spent is so stunning, it just knocks your socks off. But that’s because Barack Obama has raised a stunning amount of money, and he has it to spend. There’s some criticism within the Democratic ranks that he’s not using that money to help people down the ticket. It’s all about Barack Obama at this point.

And what he wants to say to the American voter is so, well, prosaic. I mean, he’s just going to say, I’m someone you can trust, I’m someone you know. Don’t believe all these arguments about my character. I’m someone that will lead America successfully. I’m a patriot. He wants to deliver on that basic promise that he can lead America and say he’s presidential.

What a performance. What an embarrassment. The way I heard the entire segment, he went out of his way to sideswipe Obama by merely repeating the McCain campaign’s doggerel with no pretense of analysis. And then, sight unseen, he pans Obama’s performance as “so prosaic.” Not a word of criticism for the ridiculous suggestions that Obama’s policies represent socialism. Not a finger lifted to weigh the impact of McCain and Palin’s campaign of untruths. Not an ounce of intellectual energy expended to put the campaign in any kind of historical perspective at this juncture.

This guy’s dignified as a journalist, dressed up with the title analyst, and handed a supposedly neutral national platform to offer one campaign’s take on the opponent. No one calls him on it on the air. And I’m supposed to sweat the ethical implications of some grass-roots campaign work?

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3 Replies to “Strange Campaign, Stranger Coverage”

  1. The problem with Williams — and Mara Liasson, another NPR/FOX switch hitter, and throw Cokie Roberts in there too — is it doesn’t appear at all that editors push him to bring anything real or original to his appearance. It’s just, come on the air and shoot the shit. So you get half-baked non-analysis of the sort you describe. It’s drivel and NPR could do so much better. Hell, put Nate Silver on there for a minute or two every few days during the stretch run. There’s no doubt he’d offer real insight….

  2. He didn’t really answer the questions. He’s not even an analyst. He’s just an extension of the McCain campaign. No. He’s consumed with furthering the McCain message. Shame on NPR for billing him as something else.
    “… the amount of money being spent is so stunning, it just knocks your socks off.”
    If he was a real analyst, he would have gone on to explain how the money role was usually that of Republicans. But yeah. And that is the Republicans’ problem. They are sitting there agape that the Democrats, win or lose, have beat them at their own game: The money game.
    And then he goes on to feign concern that Obama isn’t spreading the wealth down ticket. How disengenuous. I don’t know if it’s true or even necessary that Obama do that. But again, the Republicans are notorious for not spreading the wealth down ticket, especially in Illinois. He could have mentioned that.
    I agree with Pete about Nate Silver. He’s an real analyst.
    Dan, I don’t know what to tell you about your own position. That’s gotta be tough. But, at least you have your blog. And us.

  3. Amen, and glad to see you say it. Williams is a hack of the worst sort. It seems like he rarely comes out and says anything definitive, just sort of hints at things, and never strays from the current conventional wisdom. Like Pete says, he doesn’t seem to do any reporting of his own, and like Marie says, he doesn’t really analyze. What a waste of air time on NPR.

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