by Jon Margolis, CCJ Contributing Writer
Jon Margolis, former chief political reporter for the Chicago Tribune and the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964," lives in northeastern Vermont, where he writes and teaches.
Journalists are human beings. Really.
So reporters covering the presidential campaign are subject to all the temptations and emotions to which flesh is heir. The boys and girls on the bus get hungry, thirsty, angry and grumpy. Under the circumstances, it would be strange if they did not now and then succumb to the usual transgressions: gluttony (especially because someone else is paying the restaurant bills), greed, wrath, envy and a great deal of pride. Not too much sloth, probably, thanks to the greed (for glory more than gain), but it has been reported that now and then lust comes into the picture.
None of that really gets in the way of doing the job, though. A good reporter can conduct an interview and write a story just as well when he or she is in a bad mood as when feeling chipper. Maybe better – too much cheerfulness can dull one’s edge.
But what about a reporter in the grip of passion? If that passion is either love or hatred of the candidate, that might pose a problem. Journalists are supposed to provide dispassionate analysis, which is either difficult or impossible to do through the prism of passion.
And there does seem to be a lot of journalistic passion over the presidential candidates going around, with some reporters quoting their colleagues (though not by name) expressing their affection for John McCain and Barack Obama, their distaste for Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton.
In his blog for the New Republic on January 7, the day before the New Hampshire primary, Jason Zengerle talked about being at “a dinner tonight with various political reporters … and it was pretty funny how giddy/relieved they were at the prospect of a McCain-Obama general election campaign, as opposed to, say, a Romney-Clinton one.”
That was the same day that Mickey Kaus, sharing the conventional wisdom that Clinton would lose in New Hampshire, reported this on his blog: “The reporters I talk to are looking forward to the final pre-election joint Bill and Hillary Clinton rally Monday evening with the same lascivious delight you might encounter before a Britney Spears/Amy Winehouse double bill. Everyone expects it to be a gruesome night for the Clintons ...”
Meanwhile, on that very day, a bunch of New York Times reporters, Maureen Dowd noted in her January 9 column, watched Clinton’s now-famed not-quite-crying episode, taking great glee in her discomfort despite their conviction that it was fake. “That crying really seemed genuine. I’ll bet she spent hours thinking about it beforehand,” one of them said.
Not all dislike qualifies as hate, any more than high regard is equal to love. But there is no doubt that these preferences and antagonisms are more personal than political, and often quite intense. Associated Press reporter Glen Johnson’s challenge to Romney’s claim that no lobbyists were running his campaign was reasonable, but it was issued in an unusually harsh manner. It was at least an indication that Johnson disliked Romney, and some of the other journalists covering the Romney campaign made it clear that neither did they.
What is interesting – and different from the standard practice of a decade or so ago – is how willing reporters are to let the public know their feelings. Candor is generally a virtue, and there is clearly an argument for having reporters openly state their preferences.
Except that what’s happening isn’t really “open.” Reporters are not appending disclosures of admiration or scorn to their stories about Clinton or McCain. They’re just untroubled that the public knows that “the press corps” as an entity does or does not like one candidate or another.
It isn’t that there was some golden age in which reporters had no emotions. More than a half-century ago, Ed Leahy of the Chicago Daily News warned his colleagues against “falling in love” with politicians because “they’ll break your heart every time.” Obviously, the temptation to give one’s heart (or heel) to a candidate was as real then as now.
But Leahy was not just trying to save his fellow journalists from heartache. He also knew that it wasn’t their job to love or hate politicians. The job was to observe, understand and explain. Preferences – political or personal – were to be suppressed as much as possible. When they became bothersome, the preferred remedy for a reporter was to vent to his or her colleagues over a few pops in the hotel bar, secure that none of those colleagues would dream of putting this kind of talk into the public domain.
Nowadays, political reporters are less likely to have enough pops to render such venting satisfactory, and the current ethic seems to be to let it all hang out, albeit anonymously. Clearly there is something to be said both for temperance and for honesty. But maybe there was something to be said for reporters not simply keeping their emotions to themselves but keeping them out of their stories.
It can be done. No doubt some campaign reporters were smitten by John F. Kennedy’s charm. But no reasonably objective review of their 1960 coverage could conclude that the coverage had a pro-Kennedy tilt (Teddy White doesn’t count; he was working on a book that wouldn’t appear until the election was over). Four years later, most reporters preferred Barry Goldwater’s company, if not his views, to Lyndon Johnson’s, and in 1972 they both agreed with and liked George McGovern more than Richard Nixon. But Goldwater and McGovern got the same poor press coverage any loser would get.
More recently, though, personal love or hate does seem to have influenced the coverage, and in one case perhaps an election. In the 2000 campaign, Al Gore was commonly painted as a liar, though some of the evidence for that finding was based on out-and-out misquotations, some of it on assuming that any minor error (which federal disaster site he visited with which federal official) had to reflect mendacity.
Probably most of the reporters who wrote these stories agreed with Gore on most issues, and perhaps voted for him over George W. Bush; after all, the conservative complaint-mantra about the “liberal media,” while overblown, is not entirely an illusion. But they didn’t like Gore. As Time magazine columnist Margaret Carlson once put it, “it’s really easy, and it’s fun, to disprove Gore. As sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us.”
For present purposes, assume that Gore is not a likeable fellow. Twenty years ago, reporters covering the campaign would have tried not to let that influence their coverage. To one extent or another, they would have succeeded. In 2000, the lead campaign reporters for some of the top news organizations seemed to take great glee in having it influence their coverage.
That year and this year, reporters like John McCain about as much as they disliked Gore. It’s easy to see why. McCain is accessible to the press. He likes to schmooze with reporters, and in the process he pokes fun at himself. He comes across as less pre-fabricated than most candidates, a regular person not molded by his campaign consultants. Ergo: a straight shooter.
But the record does not show that McCain shoots any straighter than the rest of them. His recent charge that Romney had proposed an Iraq withdrawal date was obviously bogus. His conversion from skepticism about the fiscal prudence of big tax cuts to his current conviction that cutting taxes will actually enhance government revenue (most dubious) and that “every time in history we have raised taxes it has cut revenues" (totally false) seems artful if not insincere. His explanations about his recent change of heart on immigration policy have been murky.
But reporters like him, so he gets minimal criticism. He got almost none for laughing and not protesting when a woman at one of his events referred to Hillary Clinton as “the bitch.” At a Republican gathering in 1998, McCain told a truly tasteless, mean-spirited joke: “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno.” (Tasteless and, for what it’s worth, inaccurate; Chelsea Clinton has become a rather attractive young woman.)
As Maureen Dowd wrote, McCain “is so revered by the press that his disgusting jape was largely nudged under the rug.” The Associated Press reported it, but when other big news organizations mentioned the incident, they did not quote the joke itself.
One need not be an over-sensitive Democrat to conclude that had Hillary Clinton made similarly objectionable crack about any Republican’s child, it would have been Topic One on talk radio and TV chat shows such as “Hardball,” whose host, Chris Mathews, has openly proclaimed his contempt for Clinton. There would have been such a furor that the big newspapers as well as the broadcast and cable networks would have had to cover the story. But that’s because reporters don’t like her, and they do like McCain.
Love and hate may be hard to deny. But in the news business, they can distort.