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Sorting out Presidential Election Coverage

By Ben L. Kaufman · October 2nd, 2008 · On Second Thought

God, I hate presidential election years.

Ignore my general lack of success at picking a winner or tossing the rascals out, but the seemingly endless “silly season” doesn’t begin to describe the quadrennial misery. And I’m not even talking about the TV campaign ads.

It’s almost a relief to get coverage of Hurricane Ike and the economic debacle. At least those developing disasters pushed lipstick, kindergarten sex-ed, anti-Muslim fantasies and other campaign bullshit off most front pages.

What I miss is local reporting on local campaigns beyond candidate appearances. What are local organizations like? How many people are involved? Who’s doing what? I don’t want to be told after the election that Obama’s grassroots campaign down to the kaffee klatch won or lost. I want to know about those efforts now and what the local McCain’s campaign is doing beyond dining in Indian Hill.

Meanwhile, talk shows and bloggers spill their bile all over the airwaves and Internet, making the political process more divisive than it naturally is. They’re not alone.

New York Times essayist Brent Staples notes how racist language keeps popping up in GOP speeches and comments. He wrote that last month, “Georgia Republican Representative Lynn Westmoreland, described the Obamas as ‘uppity’ in response to a reporter’s question. . . . Representative Geoff Davis, Republican of Kentucky, succumbed to the old language earlier this year when describing what he viewed as Mr. Obama’s lack of preparedness to handle nuclear policy. ‘That boy’s finger does not need to be on the button,’ he said . . . (and) in what is probably a harbinger of things to come, the McCain campaign has already run a commercial that carries a similar intimation, accusing Mr. Obama of being ‘disrespectful’ to Sarah Palin.” Damn lucky he didn’t whistle at her.

I almost cheered when McCain said he wouldn’t participate in the first debate because he was needed in Washington to help cure economic problems. It was unintended comic relief. The image of Obama debating an empty lectern was too delicious to be real, the prospect of the networks trying to figure out what to do thrilling.

McCain previously said he knows little about economics, and one can only imagine what a man who’s been in the House and Senate for the past quarter century could add to repairing the faltering financial system.

Granted, his wife runs a major business, but you don’t get business/financial savvy by sleeping with it. The McCains have lived at the taxpayer’s tit for at least three generations, all career Navy until the now-senator decided to go to the source in Washington. You probably know more about taxes, payrolls, budgets and the pain of insecurity than the senator.

Presidential debates are generally more painful than informative. They sometimes produce memorable one-liners and gaffs, but they rarely advance our knowledge. Do you seriously believe a thoughtful question can be answered in two minutes? Do you believe the network stars will ask serious questions and risk alienating the next president?

So much for our attention span. Back to the ’fridge. Grab another cold one. What else is on? That was my expectation for the first presidential debate.

Wrong. Jim Lehrer and the candidates shook me awake. Lehrer did his job as a journalist, asking useful questions and pushing for answers when candidates obfuscated. As important were the candidates’ arguments with each other with Lehrer playing neutral referee.

That said, I haven’t a clue why anyone thinks it’s news when professional spinners and others argue who won the debate. When news media are short of money, isn’t there some better way to deploy their resources?

I’ll watch Palin/Biden debate. Maybe what an Enquirer syndicated columnist called the “cringe reflex” isn’t exhausted.

I have no quarrel with the network format including only McCain and Obama, but is there no way for the networks to introduce us to minor party candidates? Democrats and Republicans have a history of snatching third party candidates’ best ideas and making them pillars of their platforms and policies. Let us hear them from their original advocates.

Curmudgeon Notes

• Don’t expect WLW 700 to suspend a Reds game broadcast to warn us about dangerous weather or tell us what’s happening when it hits. WLW has failed notoriously at least twice, underlining the station’s contempt for what it means to broadcast on public airwaves for the benefit of its communities.

So buy your weather alert radio with its battery backup and forget the rest. If you want the gory details of local broadcasters’ nonfeasance, read The Enquirer’s John Kiesewetter’s two post-Ike stories. He nails it.

Cincynewsache.blogspot.com is burned out. Devoted to writing about The Enquirer, Newsache wrote, “I'm leaving the blogging business. And let me be clear: No one is silencing me. I'm just tired of it. The Enquirer is hopeless. Thank you for reading and commenting and supporting me.”

I’ll miss Newsache, not least because he/she often wrote perceptively if angrily about The Enquirer. I don’t know his/her identity. My suspicion is that Newsache is an insider or someone so well-connected and so trusted by Enquirer employees that he/she receives a steady stream of insider information, including management memos. And I’m struck by the coincidence of widespread newsroom retirements and NewsAche leaving the fray. I won’t try to do what he/she did, but I’d love to hear from his/her sources at the Enquirer: mediacritic@citybeat.com.

• In a typically candid and gracious addition to NewsAche’s find blog, Enquirer Editor Tom Callinan wrote: “This is likely an unexpected but sincere thank you from the target of many of your posts. Your blog, particularly in its early days, raised some very legitimate criticisms of our work. Sometimes it stung. Sometimes the comments descended into petty cheap shots at hard-working individuals. But in your best moments you nailed our misgivings and challenged us to be better. Reminded me of the glory days of traditional media watchdogs such as the St. Louis Journalism Review (I am dating myself, to be sure). Our industry needs watchdogs if we deem to be watchdogs ourselves. I will miss you, I think. Best wishes and please let us know with an occasional e-mail missive at least when we do well or fall short.”

• Good news from 312 Elm St.: The Enquirer hired Barry Horstman, a fine reporter and former editor at The Cincinnati Post.

• PBS wins a prize for stupid election tricks. Its poll asks, “Do you think Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President of the United States?” Choices are Yes, No and Not Sure. The result will reflect only partisan ability to flood PBS with online votes. That’s hardly a valid opinion poll. Even Big Bird is smarter than this.

• We’re in trouble when members of Congress protect our interests better than the news media. Rather than analyzing and challenging the premises and answers being offered by Bernanke and Paulson, national news media are regrouping into the phalanx that gave us the war in Iraq. They are on the team again, creating an “amen corner” for the conventional wisdom that “we must do something immediately” to end the financial debacle brought on by Paulson’s buddies and the smartest MBAs in the room. Meanwhile, principled conservatives and liberals are forcing the Bush administration to consider taxpayers’ needs as well as purses.

• Finally, a better word for the financial mess created by the brightest guys in the room: “debacle.” It was on an NPR hourly newscast. First time I’d heard it used. It’s better than “meltdown” and “death spiral.” Granted, “debacle” is from the French, but NPR is elitist. I would have preferred “fuckup” because debacle and the related “fiasco” suggest complete rout or breakdown. That isn’t what happened to our financial structures. Not yet. “Snafu” and “fubar” are not as good because it’s not situation-normal all fucked up or fucked-up beyond all recognition. Wait.

Editor & Publisher’s Joe Strupp reports that the shrinking corps of newspaper ombudsmen often has been among the first targeted for cuts. Since the start of 2008, the axe appears to be falling faster on these public editors and reader representatives, who contend their work is as important as any staff writer or editor — perhaps more so as the industry faces some of its toughest challenges, prompting a need for someone who can handle reader concerns. He quotes Gina Lubrano, former ombudsman at The San Diego Union-Tribune and executive secretary of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, as saying, "This is unprecedented, this dropping of ombudsmen left and right." Lubrano, who says her group has 27 U.S. members, notes that some 10 newspapers have dropped them in the past 12 months. "We are going through a bad time in journalism." Among the latest to decide it doesn’t need an ombudsman is The Louisville Courier-Journal, where the idea of a reader representative first took root.

• YouTube has a locally produced pro-Obama video combining a huge volunteer choir and bits of the candidate’s convention speech; see it here. Dr. Catherine Roma, founder and director of MUSE, the Cincinnati women's choir, gathered more than 160 singers and musicians to Bishop Todd O'Neal's House of Joy. In an hour on a July evening, this "New World Choir" learned "It's a New World" and then performed that original composition. Tony Williams Sr. and his son, Steven, handled the sound, prerecording the instrumentalists and adding soloists to create the master sound track. John and Barb Wolf videotaped everything. Roma and O'Neal worked with John Tippey to edit the video. The Tippeys’ son Jake compressed and uploaded the nine minute video to YouTube.

• Sydney H. Schanberg says McCain is no friend of missing POWs. In The Nation last month, he writes that “John McCain ... has, inexplicably, worked very hard to hide from the public stunning information about American prisoners in Vietnam who, unlike him, didn't return home. Throughout his Senate career, McCain has quietly sponsored and pushed into federal law a set of prohibitions that keep the most revealing information about these men buried as classified documents. Thus the war hero people would logically imagine to be a determined crusader for the interests of POWs and their families became instead the strange champion of hiding the evidence and closing the books. Almost as striking is the manner in which the mainstream press has shied from reporting the POW story and McCain's role in it. ... Reporters who had covered the Vietnam War have also turned their heads and walked in other directions. McCain doesn't talk about the missing men, and the press never asks him about them. The sum of the secrets McCain has sought to hide is not small. There exists a telling mass of official documents, radio intercepts, witness depositions, satellite photos of rescue symbols that pilots were trained to use, electronic messages from the ground containing the individual code numbers given to airmen, a rescue mission by a Special Forces unit that was aborted twice by Washington and even sworn testimony by two defense secretaries that 'men were left behind.' This imposing body of evidence suggests that a large number -- probably hundreds -- of the U.S. prisoners held in Vietnam were not returned when the peace treaty was signed in January 1973 and Hanoi released 591 men, among them Navy combat pilot John S. McCain.”

Schanberg is no crank or newcomer to the issues. He won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting "at great risk" for his accounts of the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. He is also the recipient of many other awards, including two George Polk awards, two Overseas Press Club awards and the Sigma Delta Chi prize for distinguished journalism.

• Where is mainstream news media outrage at preemptive searches and arrests of journalists and media activists by authorities in the Twin Cities before the Republican convention? Or the arrests of journalists during the convention in St. Paul? Is righteous anger reserved for traditional, mainstream news media folks? It’s almost enough to join the chorus of critics damning “corporate media.” St. Paul says it’s dropping charges, but those folks now have arrest records that won’t be purged from myriad interlocking systems. It’s an intimidation tactic that is becoming commonplace because authorities know no one other than the people arrested and their alternative media buddies will complain.

• Opinion page editors are no strangers to mass-produced but locally signed letters to the editor. Recognizing them before they’re printed is the problem. In mid-September, Margriet Oostveen wrote that she ghost-wrote letters for McCain supporters to sign and send to their local papers. Her story appeared first in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, where Oostveen writes a weekly "Message From Washington." I got the translation from Salon.com.

She wrote of her stint in McCain's Virginia campaign headquarters: “I even pretended to have a son in Iraq. ‘You can be whoever you want to be,’ says an inviting (campaign worker) Phil Tuchman. ‘You can be a beggar or a millionaire. A mom or a husband. Whatever. You decide!’ ... Next to commercials and phone banking, writing letters to the editor is the most important method of the McCain campaign to attract voters. At least that is what's written in the guidelines that Tuchman presents to me. ... The assignment is simple: We are going to write letters to the editor and we are allowed to make up whatever we want -- as long as it adds to the campaign. After today we are supposed to use our free moments at home to create a flow of fictional fan mail for McCain. ‘Your letters,’ says Tuchman, ‘will be sent to our campaign offices in battle states. Ohio. Pennsylvania. Virginia. New Hampshire. There we'll place them in local newspapers. ... We will show your letters to our supporters in those states. If they say: "Yeah, he/she is right!" then we ask them to sign your letter. And then we send that letter to the local newspaper. That's how we send dozens of letters at once. No newspaper can refuse a stream of articulate expressions of support is the thought behind it. This way, we will always get into some letters column.' ... Tuchman has handed out model letters and talking points and quotes from Sarah Palin's speech..."

CONTACT BEN KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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