Monday, April 23, 2007

Bernard Shaw and the Sorry State of Political Journalism

Cross-posted at TAPPED

Over at the Politico, Roger Simon takes us on a little trip down memory lane back to 1988, when Bernard Shaw dealt a crushing blow to the Dukakis candidacy by asking the Massachusetts governor, with the opening question of his final debate with George H. W. Bush, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for her killer?” Simon paints Shaw’s question as evidence that Shaw succeeded in his self-proclaimed goal to be the Edward R. Murrow of his time. “Bernard Shaw was one tough customer,” Simon tells us. “‘As reporters, we were not doing our jobs if we don't ask the toughest question possible,’ Shaw said.” What a crock.

In case you’re too young to remember, Dukakis was savaged in the press for the way he answered Shaw’s question. With a heavy sigh (Bush had been pummeling him over his opposition to the death penalty), Dukakis explained all the reasons why he opposed the death penalty. He did not raise his fists to sky and scream, “Kitty!!! No!!!” Nor did he say, “Well, now that you put it that way, I guess I’ll discard the principle I’ve held my entire time in public life. Fry the bastard!” Nor did he punch Shaw in the mouth, though he certainly would have been justified. Instead, he answered the question in a manner appropriate to someone who wanted to be president of the United States. Simon tells us what happened next:
In the press room, the murmurs over Shaw's question now turned to mutters over Dukakis' answer. “He's through.” “That's all she wrote.” “Get the hook!”

The reporters sensed it instantly. Even though the 90-minute debate was only seconds old, they felt it was already over for Dukakis. He had not been warm. He had not been likable. He had not shown emotion. He had merely shown principle.

Afterwards, his aides would try explain that he had been sick. He had seen two doctors before the debate. He had a fever, a virus. He wasn't himself.

But while he may have been sick, he was himself. That was the problem.

Journalists then proceeded to say to the public, guess what – just as we’ve been saying for months, Dukakis is too cold-blooded and passionless to be president. We were right all along. “A man who shows not the flicker of shock or anger at a truly brutal question about the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife,” wrote David Broder at the time, “is not a man who can convey the feelings he undoubtedly has about flag, country, or creator.”

But Shaw wasn’t trying to tease out the reasons Dukakis opposed the death penalty. His question was the worst kind of “gotcha,” something with no policy content whatsoever. Its goal, and what it achieved so spectacularly, was to provide the “decisive moment” that would cast into sharp relief the character flaw that reporters had already decided was Dukakis’ Achilles heel.

But according to Simon, here’s how Shaw described it afterward: “I was just doing my job, asking that question…I thought of Murrow taking on McCarthy. That was the essence of what I wanted to be: Fearless, not afraid of the scorching bite of public criticism. I'm not afraid of being disliked. I'm not afraid of being criticized. In that debate, I did the right thing. I know I did. I know it.”

Let’s clarify something. Edward R. Murrow took on powerful people who were doing wrong. Bernard Shaw came up with a zinger question to put a candidate in an uncomfortable position, one tiny step above “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Shaw wasn’t some kind of modern-day Murrow, he was a hack, the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with how presidential campaigns are covered.

There’s an unbroken line between Shaw, and Kit Seelye and Ceci Connolly making up lies Al Gore never told, and Jodi Wilgoren musing on John Kerry’s windsurfing, and Maureen Dowd writing about John Edwards’ haircut, and on and on and on into this campaign and the next and the next. It’s not about substance, and it isn’t even about “character.” It’s about finding what reporters think is the worst thing about a candidate, and picking and picking at it until their evident belief that it should disqualify him from the presidency becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s nothing to be proud of, and if Bernard Shaw thinks there’s some parallel between his brand of questioning and what Edward R. Murrow did, he’s truly deluded.

UPDATE: Via email, DavidNYC of Swing State Project reminds me of the relationship of this story to the Ed Muskie tears-in-the-snow incident. In 1972, Ed Muskie was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. He came under vicious attack from the far-right Manchester Union-Leader, up to and including an attack on his wife. Muskie went to Manchester and held a press conference outside the paper's offices denouncing them. As it was written, Muskie became so emotional during the press conference that tears began to run down his face. For his part, Muskie denied that he had cried, asserting instead that the snowfall was landing on his face and melting.

Whether there were tears or not, reporters took the incident as proof that Muskie was not quite right in the head, and couldn't be trusted with his finger on the nuclear trigger. His campaign was soon over.

But there's a back-story to this, one that some of the principal players involved later admitted. Let's remember that in 1972 the group of reporters who decided which candidates lived and died was even smaller and more insular than it is today (and, by the way, all male and all white). Allow me to offer an excerpt from The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories that Shape the Political World, a book I wrote way back in 2003 with Kathleen Hall Jamieson:
Why was Muskie's emotional response to an attack on his wife given such attention and an unflattering and cautionary interpretation? David Broder later explained: "All of us suspected that under the calm, placid, reflective face that Muskie liked to show the world, there was a volcano waiting to erupt. And so we treated Manchester as a political Mt. St. Helens explosion, and, in our perception, an event that would permanently alter the shape of 'Mt. Muskie.'" In his book Behind the Front Page, Broder quoted reporter Lou Cannon, relating how after playing poker with Ed Muskie he concluded that the Senator was "a little temperamental to be President of the United States." "What does a political reporter do with this kind of insight?" asked Cannon. "As in this instance, it is rarely written as a hard news story the first time the thought arises...What we reporters tend to do is to store away in our minds such incidents and then use them to interpret - to set a context - for major incidents when the occur."

In other words, Cannon, Broder, and the rest of the Kewl Kids of the day had decided that Muskie was unfit to be president, so they waited until they had a chance to take some event that was in truth rather unimportant, and blow it up into something that allegedly revealed the twisted core of the candidate, the monster lurking within Muskie.

Was their belief about Muskie accurate? I can't say - I was but a wee pup at the time. But one thing's for sure. They - not the voters, the reporters - decided that Muskie would make a bad president, and they made damn sure he wouldn't get the chance.

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