Steven Brill, Publisher of Brill’s Content, told conference participants what he would do to keep candidates accountable and the public interested in coverage of issues.
Bill Kovach asked me to think about what, if I had a staff at a newspaper or a local news organization, a local television news organization, or a nationaltelevision news organization, covering an election campaign, what are some of the things I would do.
The first thing I’d do is I’d make sure that they have more time, more space, and more resources to cover it than most of the people representing news organizations in this room, I suspect, will have. In a world in which the JonBenet story is bigger news than a coup involving a budding nuclear power, we in this room are not the problem. And no amount of great ideas that we come up with here will be as significant as a decision by the people who control news organizations to let us cover real news. On the other hand, I do think there is a way we can package political news, issues news even, and make it more aggressive. There’s a way that will give it a better audience and therefore make it more competitive with JonBenet in the marketplace. I really believe that.
I’d make sure that if a congressional candidate is a businessperson that we did an in-depth profile of how that person runs and has run that business. From labor policy to consumer pricing policy, to how the business was financed at the beginning to complaints about the business, to good things the business has done to the business’s community involvement before the candidate decided he was going to be a candidate, I’d take a very good look at that person’s record as a businessperson.
If the candidate is an incumbent I would want a story and a chart that we would run matching the candidate’s votes to campaign contributors who had an interest in that vote. In fact, if I was covering legislative politics, state or federal, any time there was a congressional vote, any time, I would match the vote with a listing of who cast that vote based on the percentage of campaign contributions the person got from an interested party in that vote. Until the system is changed, I would always link campaign contributions to a vote.
What that means is if somebody voted in a way that was against the obvious interests of significant contributors to his or her campaign, I’d say that. I wouldn’t just say the negative. I’d say the positive also. But I would always, always make that an issue. No story I ever did about anybody’s decision in Congress or in a state legislature would be without some mention of how that vote might tie into campaign contributions. Let people complain about that. Let them say it’s obvious. Of course it’s obvious that people will contribute to congresspeople or representatives who vote their way. You don’t have to tell your readers that, it’s obvious. And I’d say let’s just keep it obvious….
You can pick through this suggestion and figure out all different kinds of problems with it. How will you know which interest is which? How will you know how to do the percentages? How will you know how to do the amounts? But you get the point. The point is since in the real world in Washington, D.C. votes are linked to campaign contributions, at a minimum there is an appearance of conflict of interest. It seems to me that one way to package and cover politics is to record that and record it very specifically.
I also believe deeply in asking candidates, asking anybody, specific questions that have a yes or no answer, then running a chart that lists the candidates’ positions based on those yes or no answers. If somebody won’t answer “yes” or “no,” you have another box that says, “Won’t answer.” Maybe the icon you use for that is a chicken or something. But you spruce this up. You package it and make not answering yes or no a real issue.
Frankly, I think a lot of the political reporting, a lot of the interviews with candidates, tend not to frame questions that can get real yes or no answers. The fact is people have to make decisions ultimately based on yes and no. That’s how they vote in Congress or in a state legislature, that’s how Presidents make decisions. And there is nothing wrong with asking questions that way. There is something wrong with letting candidates get off with flowery statements that mean nothing and bore voters. Indeed, that might turn off your readers or your viewers to the campaign coverage because the statements are meant to obfuscate things. They’re meant to turn people off…. My point is that there ought to be boxes in newspapers, graphics on television, that tell us whether candidates are answering questions and when they say “yes” and when they say “no.” Then you can develop a package that contrasts candidates’ answers to very specific questions. There isn’t nearly enough of that going on right now….
What I’m saying is that I think politicians running for office ought to be held to that test. There is a way to frame questions that is fair. And now that we have the Internet there is a way to let people who are interested know the details of how you’re framing questions. Longer answers that people give behind their yes or no can be provided easily. There’s a way to expand this package. I think that one of the problems is we’re letting people off too easily with non-answers. So I would do that.
Would I run horserace stories? Of course I would. Because I think how a candidate runs a campaign has a whole lot to do with how a candidate would hold office. Particularly somebody running for an executive office. Managing a campaign in microcosm is often a good view of how that person would run the executive branch, whether it’s a statehouse or the White House….
Similarly, I would run lots of stories about the candidates’ ads, and I’d apply the resources to fact check those ads. And I’d keep a box score on accuracy of the ads, call them as I see them. There are certain things that are factually incorrect that you can say, “That’s incorrect,” and you don’t simply have to raise questions about it.
Would I run polling stories? Sure I would, but not nearly as many. Again I wouldn’t let them crowd out my beloved issues chart where I would have yes, no, and won’t answer. During the campaign I’d use that chart so that if one day the issue of tax relief came up, I’d do the story and flash the box on what these candidates have said on two or three questions having to do with tax relief or tax cuts or tax policy.
Just to give you an example of how I might frame an issue: You could ask two people running in a senate race or a congressional race if they think that the gap between rich and poor in this country is too wide. “Yes or no?” That’s easy, yes or no. Not it depends, not this, not that. Then you can ask those who think it is too wide, “Do you think that federal tax policy ought to do more to fix it, to readjust it? Yes or no?” Reasonable questions worthy of reasonable answers. If the candidates have longer answers they want to append to it maybe you put some of that in the story, maybe you put some of that on your Web site. But you have a chart with yes, no and won’t answer. You’ll start seeing patterns of people who won’t answer anything. And that should be a story.
But at least instead of a mealy-mouthed story saying, so and so seems reluctant to address the issues at this point in the campaign, blah, blah, blah, you say, so and so has refused to answer nine out of the 10 questions we’ve given him. And let him attack you for saying that. Let him attack your questions. They should be good enough questions, and you should be able to defend them. I would devise a hypothetical based on something real, for example, having to do with school vouchers. Again ask, yes or no? It’s a complicated policy, but if you really think about it you can boil it down and get a yes or no.
All of this would be aimed at getting journalism to do what it’s supposed to do and what it does best. And that is to inform people in a democracy. Really inform. Inform them as consumers of a democracy. Inform them as voters. But again, none of these methods is going to matter if there’s not the time and the effort put into the coverage. Nor is it going to matter if the coverage is crowded out by the latest “developments” in stories that aren’t stories at all but are just there because they seem to get ratings because these other stories haven’t been packaged and articulated well enough…. On television I’d be happy to be rude to the people I interview in the following way: Ask that question to get a yes or no answer. “Do you think that we should use federal tax policy to narrow the gap between the rich and poor in this country?” Somebody gives you a two-minute speech. You say, “That’s very interesting, but would you mind answering my question, yes or no?” Why don’t we see more of that on television? Why is everybody part of the same club?
I don’t think that’s being negative or being rude in the way that gets attacked now for being negative and rude. The press gets attacked now for this because they’re not interested in issues. They’re not interested in those answers. They’re interested in whether the guy running for office had a drinking problem 20 years ago. Or they’re interested in whether his pollster is better than the other pollster. Or they’re interested in his strategy. But simply saying to somebody, “That’s very nice but you haven’t answered my question. Can you give our viewers a yes or no? Yes or no, what’s the answer? Oh, you won’t answer my question.”
I think that is what journalists were put on earth to do, to be rude about that kind of stuff and not be negative or rude about the political leader’s personal life, his personal habits, his momentum, his lack of momentum. That’s garbage compared to this stuff. And this stuff, I’m telling you, can be made dramatic by doing it that way. So I submit to you that seeing some of that on television may just be the kind of material that can compete with the JonBenet Ramsey stories, if we are willing to have the guts to do that.
I think that a lot of journalists in Washington, dare I say this at the National Press Club, because they’re part of the same club as the people they’re covering don’t want to ask those questions. I mean, how many times have we all watched one of the Sunday shows and said, “Why don’t you just make him answer the damn question instead of giving a two-minute speech?” People love that. We all do this. If you’ve ever been coached to be on a book tour, peddling a book, you know what the first rule of being on a book tour is. Always answer the question that you wish they had asked. I assume politicians are told that from the moment they’re born. Which is, always answer the question you wish somebody had asked, not the question they did ask. It’s our job not to let people get away from that….
My suggestion to you is that in political coverage the accountability, the gotcha, has been misdirected. The gotcha and the accountability has been directed toward all this personal stuff and not to issues.
I think there’s a way, maybe I’m just a wonk at heart, but I think there is a way to make serious issues coverage interesting, to make political campaigns interesting. With some new creativity and new aggressiveness—combined again with the resources that you have to have to be able to do this stuff—you can create a kind of coverage that actually can do pretty well in the marketplace and compete with celebrity coverage and the coverage of non-issue issues that seem to be carrying the day today.