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Political columnist, <i>The Washington Post</i>
President Cotter, distinguished platform officials, Senator Smith, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great honor to be here at the college which gave Elijah Parish Lovejoy his education and to follow so many truly distinguished journalists who have received this award, including my former boss, my mentor, my teacher and my friend, Russ Wiggins, who is also here with us this evening. Russ...
It is a cliché to say that one feels humbled on such an occasion, but it is also, in this case, a simple truth. I want to thank the selection committee and Colby College for this honor which is far greater than I deserve. I am also very glad to be back in Maine with Ann Broder tonight. I've been coming here on political campaigns now for thirty years, since the November night when John Kennedy campaigned in Portland on the eve of the 1960 election. And in that time, I've come to have great admiration for the quality of democracy that is practiced here, and not coincidentally the leaders that Maine has produced in both parties, and in no party at all. I think of Jim Longley with whom I had a most agreeable and never ever finished debate about the merits and demerits of party loyalty. And I think, of course, of the distinguished men and women that you have sent to the Senate, starting with the very special lady who is here with us tonight. I have to say Senator Smith, of all the souvenirs on my campaign travels, one of my favorites is that snapshot of you with the group of us reporters on a snowbank on a very cold January morning when you were on your way up, I think to the little town of Pittsburg, New Hampshire. Senator Smith decided when she ran for president in 1964, that as always, she would do it her own way. She decided she would campaign New Hampshire from the top down. It was perhaps the last and maybe the only Presidential campaign I know where the candidate was fueled by pimento cheese sandwiches which she had made herself. And, it was a wonderful time. [But for Margaret Chase Smith and Ed Muskie, to George Mitchell and Bill Cohen and the outstanding legislators and governors that I've known here in Maine from Frank Coffin to Olympia Snowe from Ken Curtis to Joe Brennan and to Jock McKernan today. Sic]
I also want to say something about the quality of journalism in this state, which has been exceptional from the time that I first came here. And I should probably say something special about the little metropolis of Ellsworth, that not only has Russ Wiggins as its editor but my old friends Helen and Dick Dutman equally standard-setting in the broadcast news area. I think of all the Maine political stories that I've heard over the years. Probably the one that touched me the most was one that I heard from Joe Brennan when he was governor after the 1984 caucuses--where as you recall, Gary Hart just beat the stuffing out of the Democratic political establishment of this state. And after that was all over, I was talking with Governor Brennan and he told me about this really nice experience that he'd had. He had been down in Washington and he was on the plane coming back. This very nice young man, he said, came up to him. A young fellow, probably in his early 20s. He introduced himself, saying, "My name is Ron Briggs. I think you know my family. They've been supporters of yours in South Portland." And Brennan said, "I was just as gracious as I could be to him." And I said, "Well, tell me young man, what are you doing?" And he said, "Well, I've been working in Senator Hart's office and I'm coming up here to give him a little help getting organized for the caucus." And Governor Brennan said, "I gave him a most wonderful, heart-warming speech about how fine it is to see young people like you take an interest in politics and you can't tell where it may go. You may start at this level, and even if you don't win," Brennan said, "I told him it's going to be a wonderful experience. So I'm really proud that you're doing it." And he paused for a moment, and then looked at me and said, "And you know that young man went out and beat my ass?"
Somehow, that seemed to me to sort of capture the spirit of Maine politics. And there are not very many places in our country, unfortunately, where there is so little distance between the elected officials and the citizens, and where the barriers of cynicism and distrust on both sides of that equation don't get in the way of communications, of the give-and-take, that is the healthy part of our politics. As President Cotter has mentioned, we just finished another campaign. And it's another campaign which frankly left a lot of our fellow citizens with a very bad taste in their mouths. And a lot of them showed that distaste in the most visible way possible, by opting out of the act of citizenship, called voting. As President Cotter mentioned, we spend a lot of time in our reporting with the voters themselves. This year particularly, we focused in on my home state of Illinois, where there was an interesting governor's race and an interesting senate race. And we spent the first week after Labor Day, going around door to door, talking to people in the communities trying to get a sense from them as to what subjects they would like to hear the candidates address. And then we went back to some of those same people at the very last weekend before election day and said, "Now you've seen the campaign. You've watched it unfold. How do you feel about it?" And I won't bore you with all the quotes, but I'll give you just a couple that unfortunately captured the flavor of what we heard:
A man named Gerald McDonald said, "I've made my choice," noting that he'd voted in every election since he came from the Vietnam War. "I'm not voting for any of them because they're all jerks."
"I always believed, and I still do in fact, that the voters have very good mental radar sets."
A man named Randy Harms said, "It discredits their whole campaign and their whole effort," when talking about the kind of ads that he'd seen on television in Illinois. "As soon as you form an opinion on one, the other one comes on TV two minutes and he criticizes him. It would be very refreshing to see a candidate get up before his country and say, 'These are the problems, and this is why I think I can do the job better than my opponent.'" Well, you've heard that same kind of comment. You've probably made that kind of comment yourself in talking about the campaigns. And the truth is not new. The historians like Russ Wiggins would point out that the epithets that were hurled at Thomas Jefferson in our very first partisan presidential election were every bit as tough as those we hear in our politics now. And no one in this state will have forgotten the jeer, "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine."
I grew up in the Chicago area, and I believe with Mr. Dooley that politics ain't bean-ball. And for a long, long time I covered politics with great pleasure, not worrying at all about the sort of ivory tower critics who claim that the politicians were not always candid, were not always focused on the issues, and that the voters were not always logical in their response. I always believed, and I still do in fact, that the voters have very good mental radar sets. That they cut through a lot of the chaff in the political campaign and that they generally get the candidates pretty clearly in their sights by the time election day comes around. But the one discipline that we are supposed to enforce on ourselves as journalists is a regard for the evidence. As they used to say in the city news bureau sign in Chicago, "If you think your mother loves you, check it." That's what we're supposed to do as journalists, is to look at the evidence. And the evidence today is so overwhelming, that more and more voters are turned off by the political process in this country. It is just impossible, even for a supposedly skeptical, cynical journalist to ignore what is happening.
I was on a panel, a couple of days after the election, down in Washington with Ed Rollins, who is the co-chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. He put something in terms that really struck me. He said, 'The basic kind of polling question, the standard that is used frequently now, 'Do you think our country, generally speaking, is heading in the right direction or do you think we have gotten seriously off on the wrong track?' This fall 70% of those interviewed answered by saying the country is off on the wrong track." Rollins said, "Think about that. That's higher than it was in 1982, when the unemployment in this country had reached 11%. It's higher than it was in 1974 when Richard Nixon was facing an impeachment resolution in Congress. It's higher than it was in 1978 when the country was standing in gas lines waiting to buy gasoline."
Dick Worthland, another Republican pollster, made the observation that if you ask a follow-up question of those voters and say, "Why do you think the country is off on the wrong track?" The second most frequent response, now volunteered, is "because the government is not governing. The politicians are not doing their jobs.' After a series of personal experiences, really starting in 1986 campaign and climaxing in 1989, (which I will not bore you with reciting), it finally dawned on me why this might be. What finally came through to me was that the dialogue in our political campaigns increasingly was being shaped and controlled by people whose only job and mission was to win the election. Thurston Morton, of Kentucky, when he was Republican National Chairman, years ago, used to have a line in his basic speech where he said, The purpose of politics is to establish government."
Somehow in more recent years, even the people in politics and the practitioners of politics seem to have forgotten that point and behave increasingly as if the sole and defining purpose of politics was to win an election. [Pollsters, media consultants, hired to produce votes and making very handsome incomes when they could in fact produce those votes. Now, it wasn't just that these people were wicked or more short-sighted or more parochial than their predecessors. sic ] What happened was that a lot of technology became available to them which had not been available to their predecessors. Information retrieval systems let them research opponents' records far more thoroughly than in the past. Even in the kind of reform that produced many more roll-call votes in Congress and in the legislatures gave them much more raw material for that research. The development of electronic tape let them produce ads much more quickly. Interviewing techniques, particularly the use focus groups, allowed them to pretest their messages in a way that they couldn't have done beforehand. This began, and I want to emphasize this point, not with Willy Horton and the pledge ads in 1988 but really in the 1986 mid-term election. And it involved candidates and consultants of both political parties. A man named Alan Erenholt at my old publication The Congressional Quarterly, wrote back in 1986 about the new form of electronic debate which was taking over our politics. In this kind of politics, what the candidates and the consultants searched for, what they test and then what they use are what they like to call the "wedge" issues. These are items of information or pseudo-information (because the accuracy level is not terribly high) which cause voters to think again about their inclination or their preference between candidates. These are tested in a focus-group kind of setting.
"As participatory democracy loses its rationale, so, from our point of view as journalists, does the rationale disappear for the coverage of politics in the mass media."
In a typical case, if I tell you that Charlie is a wombat and sleeps in a cave, would it make any difference in how you feel about voting for him for president of the United States? Now, as reporters confronting this kind of campaign technique, our first instinct was to say, "Well, Charlie isn't a wombat. Let him prove it. It's his problem. It's not our problem as reporters. That's what campaigns are about. And if he can't prove that he's not a wombat and sleeps in a cave, tough luck, maybe he wouldn't make a good president anyhow." But that is not the way in which the campaign consultants would advise Charlie the wombat to deal with that charge if it came up in the campaign. They'd say, "You don't want to get on the offensive, Charlie. If he's going to hit you with the wombat thing, the way that you want to respond is to say that the only reason that he said that kind of nasty thing is that Harry is really a nighthawk." And then you get to pick between this big bird with the ugly talons or the wombat in his cave. And the wombat and the nighthawk dialogue has taken over an awful lot of our politics. That becomes the campaign. And that's fine except for two small items. The voters who are watching this and who have, like all of us, real concerns, like jobs, schools, housing, crime, drug, how much time and effort it takes to get from their homes to their jobs and back again, and health, and maybe a war in the Persian Gulf. They don't hear those topics talked about very much in this kind of campaign. And the other problem is that after the disillusion of Bush's 'Read my lips.' and Jim Florio in New Jersey, somehow not managing to mention in the course of that whole gubernatorial campaign there in 1989 that he was about to hand the state the biggest tax increase it had ever seen." The light finally lit up in my head. And this is what I finally came to understand, thirty years after I started covering politics.
If campaigns have no connection to the voters' real concerns, and if those campaigns give the voters no way of either predicting or mandating what will happen next after the election day, then the only people who are likely to care about campaigns or politics, or who should care, are people like you and me, political freaks, who will come out on a Friday night to hear a talk about this kind of a subject. That is never going to be more than a small fragment of the community. And as participatory democracy loses its rationale, so, from our point of view as journalists, does the rationale disappear for the coverage of politics in the mass media.
I have walked you through a sort of a mental process that I went through and the only thing that came out of this whole process late last year was a series of columns and a couple of longer pieces arguing that we in the press have to somehow redefine our role and our mission in the coverage of campaigns. We have to become what I called activists on behalf of the process. I meant by that two things: one, we have to engage ourselves directly with the main form of political communication -- radio and television ads. We have to examine those ads as if they were, what they in fact are, the most important speeches that the candidates give in any campaign. We have to force the candidates to preview them before they go on the air. We have to ask them to be ready and avail themselves to defend the assertions in those ads. We have to demand the evidence to support those assertions from the candidates. We have to examine that evidence. And then, most important, we have to report to our own readers, viewers, and listeners whether what the ad is saying is true, is false, is accurate, or is distorted.
Much to my astonishment and delight something like that has in fact happened in a lot of states around the country this year. I have clips now from somewhat over 30 states where newspapers have run ad-watch features of one form or another, doing exactly that kind of clinical dissection of the assertions and impressions that are made by these political ads. A few television stations have done the same thing. In Dallas, Austin, San Francisco. Not all of the judgments have been as tough or as clear as you would like to see. In the end of the campaign, in the last couple weeks, I think news organizations everywhere, were all but overwhelmed by the volume of new ads that were coming at them in the closing days. But at least the precedent has been set this year. And there are now a few major campaigns that understand because they've had the experience that they can no longer sneak ads onto the air. Almost all ad campaigns now routinely attempt to document the assertions that they make in the ads. I've been told by some of the political consultants, who are actually in the business of making these ads, that if the ads this year were not less negative then they have perhaps become more specific and less broad-brushed in the statements that have been made.
In a few salutary cases, people have actually been penalized by the kind of ad that they've run. In the Texas governor's race, one of the ad-makers for the Democratic candidate had to apologize publicly for distorting a newspaper headline that he had used in an ad. In the Oregon governor's race the Republican candidate fired his ad-maker because the heat got to be so great that he decided that it's not worth it to pay the price for all the abuse that this ad-maker is taking.
The consultants themselves have become much more visible players in the process.
The public begins to see them and understand the way in which those consultants try to manipulate public opinion. They have to take responsibility for their own track records, which is a healthy thing because that will affect them in the only place that ultimately counts, namely, in the pocketbook and in their ability to get contracts for the next election cycle.
Now, having said all that, let me tell you we still have far too many negative ads in our politics and far too many distorted ads. But I never imagined this year, 1990, would be anything other than a trial run for 1992 and I think it served that purpose. I think you will see in 1992 that the national new television networks will be doing far more scrutiny and far more critical scrutiny of the ads which are running on television. And if them is one thing that is likely to be an effective counter to distorted television ads it is a television piece freezing the frame and saying, "Look at that assertion. Look at that picture. That is a distortion." I think that will really have some effect.
Now the second part of the project is much tougher and frankly we didn't make much headway at all this year. That is the effort to wrest control of the campaign dialogue back to the concerns that the voters really have. For far too long, all of us in political journalism, have accepted the notion that the campaign is whatever the candidates choose to talk about. They run the campaign. They make the speeches. They decide what is on the agenda. Our job is journalism, it is just to report what they are saying and doing.
"Talking to them face-to-face, finding out what is on their mind, we then ought, to the extent possible, let their concerns set our agenda, influence the questions that we take to the candidates in the press conferences, and help determine how we use the space in our newspaper and the air time on our broadcasts."
Well, there are problems. First of all, there are fewer and fewer speeches in political campaigns in part because we in the press have gotten out of the habit of reporting speeches even when they are made. And there is less and less said about the subjects that people really care about. We have to do what we can to remedy that situation, recognizing in advance, that it is not going to be much. The agenda setting function of the press is limited, and that is probably a healthy thing for a society that it is limited. But the fact that we have limited power does not excuse us from trying to use that influence to the extent that we can-in ways that help move the dialogue back to the public concern. I think we ought to start each election cycle as reporters, in the precincts with the voters themselves. Talking to them face-to-face, finding out what is on their mind, we then ought, to the extent possible, let their concerns set our agenda, influence the questions that we take to the candidates in the press conferences, and help determine how we use the space in our newspaper and the air time on our broadcasts.
Now that is far easier said than done. But at the moment, I'm still engaged in a pretty active argument even within the newspaper business about trying to get people to think differently. This is something that we might even try to do. It may come as a surprise to you, it certainly came as a surprise to me, that editors are surprised at the suggestion that it would be a healthy thing to get reporters out into the neighborhoods talking to people.
Let me tell you finally why I think that kind of exercise would have some very healthy side-benefits for the field of journalism. It is an uncomfortable fact for those of us in that field, that the gap, the distrusts, the credibility problem is not simply a problem between elected officials and citizens. It is every bit as big between the press in all its forms and its audience, its readers, its viewers, its listeners. That gap between journalism and readers has grown because as income and education standards have improved in our profession we have gotten away from our working-class roots. I am not going to stand here at Colby College and make a foolish argument that all of us would be better off if newsrooms were once again filled with itinerant drunks who couldn't get any other kind of job and stayed in that town or that paper only until they'd been drunk so often that they got laid off and moved on to the next town. That is not the model which I would hope to see us go back to.
I do think that all of us in our business could benefit from getting back into closer touch with the people in our audience. And that is something that would come as a side effect of the kind of reporting I'm talking about. I know that this is a particular danger in Washington where we are in fact much too clubby with the people that we cover. But I suspect that it's a threat elsewhere--even perhaps in Augusta or Portland or Bangor or Waterville. And here by this circuitous route I come-back to the man whose name we honor in this ceremony tonight. Because the Lovejoy story really has two dimensions to it which fit I hope with the point I've tried, in this vague and rambling way, to make here this evening. Elijah Parish Lovejoy was of vital importance to American journalism and American society for two reasons. First, because he demonstrated, in the most difficult circumstances possible, his readiness to engage himself in the great issue of his time. But equally important, he showed his understanding and his readiness to stand apart, to remove himself a little bit from the dominant view and value of his community. [And by showing that community itself, through his critical eye, to help that community come to grips with the moral crisis that slavery presented to it and we should not delude ours elves that the legacy of slavery presents every bit as much to American society today. sic] That's why I was so pleased and honored to be part of this and that is why I want to commend all of you at Colby and all of you in this community for what you do to keep the memory of Elijah Parish Lovejoy alive in America today. Thank you very much.