Saturday, November 27, 2004

"Red" States Part IV

"Red" States Part I was mainly an e-mail that's acting as a summary of this series.
"Red" States Part II contained the belated set up and addressed the harm and hurt generalizing and stereotyping of people in "red" states is causing.
"Red" States Part III dealt with some "unsexy" issues the press isn't exploring and that the DNC might not address: the breakdown of party infrastructure and allowing "undercover"
Democrats to run with party money.

Shirley e-mailed suggesting that I offer a summary of what's already been discussed so that anyone coming in late will know what's being discussed and what has been discussed. It was a great idea and thank you.

She also notes something that bothered her. I didn't catch Letterman on Friday night (CBS's The Late Show with David Letterman) but Shirley did and was bothered by a statement that incoming Senator Barack Obama made. As she reports it, Letterman was "pressing" Obama to name mistakes made by the Kerry campaign and the one Obama elected to cite was "wind surfing." Shirley reports that was the extent of it (along with chuckles). Perhaps Obama intended to go into further detail or perhaps, talking off the top of his head, that's what came to mind.

I have no idea (and, again, didn't see the show). But if anyone really believes that Kerry electing to go wind surfing cost him the election, I'd argue they're either suffering from or attempting to comment on "media damage." (With a nod to Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner who used "damage" in another context in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe to comment on "Cosmo damage" -- a critique that Cosmopolitan narratives aren't capturing reality: "the "Lib" in Women's Lib stands for liberation, not libido.")

Let's discuss wind surfing for a moment.

Wind Surfing magazine defines the sport as:

Windsurfing is the most amazing of sports. It combines the thrills of surfing, the tranquility of sailing, and puts you in touch with nature better than a good hike. It is a sport that you can go off by yourself for some amazing peace of mind, or sail with a crowd of 200 other windsurfers for unbeatable camaraderie.

Under their "myths" section, they note:

Maybe you've heard windsurfing is expensive. It can be. But it also can be cheap. $500 can get you a good, basic setup, and from there, you have no lift tickets, no registration fees, no nothing. The wind is free!

Okay, I want you to think for a moment about the way Kerry's wind surfing was reported. It was a rich sport, it was out of touch (the magazine notes that it's been an Olympic sport for ten years now) with the "common man." (Why is that no one ever worries about the "common woman"?)

That's not what the sport is. It's also not some "delicate" sport (a quick search will turn up listings for wind surfing with other "extreme sports").

Wind surfing shouldn't have been an issue. (I will say it could have been done in Hawaii at the same time, during the Republican convention, and allowed the campaign to visit the state in August which would have prevented the last minute scramble the week before the election.) The media amplified it into one.

Just as Howard Dean's "scream" was something the media ran with, the wind surfing was mocked and ridiculed. (Republicans and Fox "News" helped further both "stories." I'm focusing on the mainstream media.)

Thanks to Bob Somerby's The Daily Howler we can find some comments on Kerry's wind surfing. Here's Jodi Wilgoren in the New York Times:

Asked whether final-stretch photo opportunities might include windsurfing, the hobby that has helped tag Mr. Kerry with an elitist's image, Mr. McCurry said, "It's too cold this time of year.”

You can also check for an example of when Dee Dee Myers chose to bring up the wind surfing as an apparent strategic error.

In fact, search for wind surfing if you're unaware of how big a deal the media made of this.

Perhaps Obama meant that wind surfing cost Kerry the election because of the way the press elected to play this non-story? If so, he's correct. During the campaign, I saw photos of Kerry playing basketball with kids previous to Dee Dee Myers telling Chris Matthews that Kerry should be doing so (see Daily Howler listed next to Dee Dee Myers above for that story). So Dee Dee Myers is complaing that Kerry's wind surfing instead of doing a pick up game of basketball.
But Kerry had already done that (and continued to do it during the campaign).

If Myers is truly unaware of this, that's underscoring the point of this installment: "media damage." Checking yahoo news ( daily for photos of the Kerry campaign, I would see Kerry playing hockey, tossing a football, playing basketball and with a group of kids playing with a soccer ball (a friend who teaches ESL said her students loved those photos). I'm sure there were other sports but those are the ones that come to mind. If I'd watched television (or read The New York Times unguided by people like Bob Somerby), I might have come away with the idea that all Kerry did or knew how to do was wind surf. Why that wind surfing, prissy pants, full of soy beans Bostonian!

But Kerry didn't just wind surf. And that wasn't the only footage or photos the press had of him. That's what they glommed on, the same way they glommed on the Dean "scream." (I'm assuming everyone is aware that Diane Sawyer explained on Good Morning America, days after the "scream" had been in the news cycle, that the audio played did not contain the crowd's reaction. Dean was addressing a cheering crowd that was applauding loudly.)

I'm not a wind surfer but, even at the time, common sense had me asking what is the big deal?

I didn't know it was an Olympic sport until I started working on this entry. Did you? Did the press tell you that? Did the press explain that it was no more of an elitist sport than, for instance, sky diving -- which former President George H.W. Bush did to celebrate his birthday this year? Anyone who wants to argue that parachuting is more "manly" than wind surfing obviously missed the photos of the Bush in mid-air strapped beneath another man.

Did those photos lead to "Poppy" being questioned about his manhood? (Has anyone forgotten that the 1984 vice presidential debate largely revolved around Poppy attempting to prove his "manhood"?) No. It was something that happened and we all moved on.

But Kerry wind surfing would not die -- with commentary that must have been insulting to anyone who actually knew about the sport or participated in it.

It's not as though George W. Bush didn't make actual mistakes they had footage of. The Majority Report ran his remarks in Florida shortly before the election -- of Bush addressing the rumors of an impending draft by saying that we would not have an all volunteer army (that would mean a draft) and then saying that there will be an all volunteer army. That was Air America, which is making it's presence known but I wouldn't yet say it has the power of the big three or cable TV.

Obama may have meant that it was the media's playing of that footage over and over and acting as though wind surfing was something so far out of the norm that it was embarrassing. (I thought the point of "extreme sports" was that they had a high "rush" level? And didn't Mountain Dew build a series of ads around the notion of "extreme sports" being cool?)

But what you heard about, what you saw, was this "elitist" sport that would make the "common man" recoil. Wind surfing. "Media damage."

Or you might get additional "media damage" courtesy of the New York Times writer Jodi Wilogern counting how many times the terms "vet" or "veterans" were used in a speech. Or, later, counting contractions. (See for Wilgoren's "reporting" on the great contraction "issue.")

Health care plans? Raising the minimum wage? The environment? Those weren't issues the press felt we cared about. We must be far more interested in the fact that Kerry had told a joke and, to read Wilgoren's account, that when she attempted to ask him on the plane where the joke came from, Kerry avoided her like the plague. (Considering Wilgoren's coverage of the campaign, I wish he'd avoided her throughout and asked all of his surrogates not to speak to her.)

Wilgoren may be an easy target. If so, it's because she's made herself one. Others at the Times were far from blameless, but sometimes Robin Toner would turn in a piece that was actually about something. Or Adam Nagourney would challenge an administration spin.

Wilgoren's pieces tended to be content free, void of anything resembling issues and often downright puzzling. Take for example when she filed a story that, in part, read remarkably like a piece done by Lois Romano in the Washington Post:

Courtesty of Sommerby again:

WILGOREN (10/22/04): “I understand he bought a new camouflage jacket for the occasion, which did make me wonder how regularly he does go goose hunting," Mr. Cheney said to a chorus of boos. “My personal opinion is his new camo jacket is an October disguise, an effort he's making to hide the fact that he votes against gun-owner rights at every turn.”
In fact, the outfit was borrowed, along with the shotgun, from the farm's owner, and within hours Mr. Kerry was back in tailored suit and rose-colored tie for another photo-op, hugging the widow of the actor Christopher Reeve, who endorsed him because of his backing embryonic stem-cell research.

ROMANO (10/22/04): Vice President Cheney, also campaigning in Ohio, mocked Kerry. "The senator who gets a grade of 'F' from the National Rifle Association went hunting this morning," Cheney said to a crowd in a soccer arena outside Toledo.
"I understand he bought a new camouflage jacket for the occasion, which did make me wonder how regularly he does go goose hunting." Waiting for the howls to recede, the vice president continued, "My personal opinion is that his new camo jacket is an October disguise, an effort he's making to hide the fact that he votes against gun-owner rights at every turn."
In fact, Kerry borrowed a jacket from one of the other hunters, said a Kerry spokesman, adding that the candidate has three similar jackets at home.

Were they using pool reports to write their stories? How else to explain that two reporters from competing papers both chose to highlight the same bit of nonsense? And, minor point, if both reporters were covering the Kerry campaign, how did they both happen to hear Cheney's remark? Were Kerry and Cheney doing a joint appearence?

Wilgoren was a target on The Majority Report when Janeane Garofalo and Sam Seder asked listeners to send coloring books, comic books, etc. to them and they'd forward them onto Wilgoren. The reason? Her reporting left them with the impression that she was bored with her job. Boredom could lead to contraction counting, for instance.

But I'll argue another theory (and if they later argued it, I missed that segment). It's just a theory, but maybe she wasn't bored, maybe she was just too preoccupied with her own impending wedding to cover the campaign?

"My engagement was first announced on Howard Dean's campaign Web log. I addressed and stamped my save-the-date cards at a hotel in Washington while John Kerry spent a slow weekend attending the dedication of the World War II memorial. "

On that self-important note, so begins Wilgoren's piece (in the style section of the Times) entitled "View: The Wedding Candidate on the Trail" (October 24, 2004).

Make no mistake, there were hardships Wilgoren had to endure to do . . . well, her job:

Like the Tuesday evening in October when Mr. Kerry's motorcade pulled up to a hotel in Colorado and I filed the third rewrite of that day's bickering over Iraq from the lobby, only to find on my vibrating cellphone the distraught voice of Julie, the manager of the Chinatown restaurant where we were having our night-before-nuptials dinner. The good news, as I told Gary long-distance a few minutes later: 20 percent off, a free Champagne toast, and dinner on the house as soon as I was back in town. The bad? Someone had double-booked the party room with the dramatic downtown view, so our 100 out-of-town guests would be shunted to the L-shaped dining area across the hall.

Bickering over Iraq? That about sums up the depth of reporting she "filed." A minor issue to the country (the seating of Wilgoren's guests) is explained in more detail than any of her "bickering" over Iraq coverage on the campaign trail. And why? Is her personal event far more important to the country, the Times and the world than what goes on in a war torn country where casualities mount with every week? Media damage.

Understand, while waiting for Kerry to show at a photo op, Wilgoren suffered, she missed the first fitting for her wedding dress! She had to shop for "flower-girl frocks" online!

It was only a movie, but, hey, Rosalind Russell was able to break off an engagement and get back together with Cary Grant while doing her job and landing & filing an important story in His Girl Friday. Movie or not, we're under the impression that reporters are interested in getting a story. Was Wilgoren focusing on her job or her wedding?

Her words:

The count down calendar at the front of the Kerry plane's press cabin shows nine days left. For me, the critical number is 42. The dress shop has assured me I can do the fittings after the election (one bride came home from Iraq just three days before taking her vows). The invitations are out, and I have already started stitching together the cotton squares our friends and family members made to form our wedding canopy.

Where was her attention? Long before Wilgoren started covering Kerry, she was the Times' reporter on the Dean campaign. For an example of her coverage there (which is before she was engaged -- to her husband-to-be, not engaged with her job) you can read this Buzzflash Reader Commentary . My point in directing you there is that there were problems with her reporting well before 2004. Yet, the Times elected to assign her to the Kerry campaign. For another view of the coverage Wilgoren offered (Katha Pollitt uses the term "catty" and that pretty much captures the Wilgoren reporting "style") check out And for a parody of the Times addressing the problems with Wilgoren's reporting, check out and WARNING this is a blog with posted comments, I have not read all the comments so there may be objectionable language that could get you in trouble according to some work place guidelines.

I'm not saying that a reporter can't count carbs to lose weight for their wedding day (Wilgoren confides that she lost 24 pounds) or have a personal life or plan a big event. Heartburn (the novel) not withstanding, Carl Bernstein managed to have a personal life while being a working reporter. (Maybe that should read "As Heartburn may suggest, Carl Bernstein managed to have quite a lively personal life while being a working reporter"? Heartburn is Nora Ephron's novel that's rumored, true or not, to be about her marriage to and divorce from Bernstein. Regardless of the basis, it's a funny book and one worth reading. And regardless of whether it's based on Bernstein or not, it doesn't diminish his accomplishments as a reporter.) But Wilgoren's "View: The Wedding Candidate on the Trail" doesn't imply that her personal business came second to her job when she was, in effect, on the clock.

When Wilgoren turned in this vanity article (one that presumably her editors requested), didn't any alarm bells go off over which day she was counting?

Or how about when she wrote "My day-to-day log of Mr. Kerry's itinerary and what he says runs 19 pages; my wedding planner outline, 17"?

Look, if Wilgoren's my fitness trainer, she can obsess to that degree over her wedding all she wants. We can even talk about it during sets, or on runs, jogs, or walks or whatever. But if she's a reporter for a paper as important as the Times and this is what's going on, maybe someone needs to find a new reporter to assign to the campaign?

I have a friend who's an attorney. She got engaged and had to be in court constantly leading up to the big event. She wasn't on the phone between court breaks dialing numbers to check on the catering. She pulled off a "small" (two hundred plus guest) wedding via two scheduled days off. Wilgoren has chosen to work for the Times in a demanding job. If she's not up to, she's not up to it.

Had my friend pulled a Wilgoren and let her personal life dominate her work time, I'm sure her firm would have pulled her off her cases. Wilgoren writes of how her "Waits for the chronically late candidate turned into Web-search sessions for tuxedo vests, ring-bearer pillows and honeymoon destinations." Excuse me, but isn't that time that could be spent exploring the campaign? "News" isn't just what Kerry said in public (a joke, contractions, etc.) or what he does (wind-surfing). It's about giving the readers a perspective. He's talking about healthcare. Do his remarks reflect the plan he's proposed? Is his proposal workable?

Seems to me that's what the "down time" is for. I mean, I'm glad that Wilgoren reports that other reporters on the campaign trail understood when they heard her on the phone having "arguments about procession order, catering costs and what we are going to do about a last name, they are also a ready-made focus group for all my bridal angst." But I'm not really sure such a confession improves one's view of the working press.

Did no one ever holler, "Hey Wilgoren, pipe down! I'm trying to work here! You know this election is a little more important to the country than your wedding!"

I knew a Wilgoren-like person at one of the jobs I had while in college. It was at a church run day care. And everytime the four-year-olds were napping or out on the playground, she was running off to the phone asking someone to cover her class. The director had to pull her aside and tell her that she was not hired to plan her wedding, she was hired to do a job. Did that reality never cross the minds of the editors at the Times?

This would-be-Wilgoren told the director, "Nothing is happening! They are asleep!" The director responded, "You never know when something's going to happen. That's why you need to be there with your eyes open, paying attention." Great advice for child care, but it seems to me it's good advice for a reporter as well.

Wilgoren confesses:

The hardest part was not picking table cloths (which we did on Oct. 13, on my way to watch the third debate in Iowa with undecided voters) or even losing weight (exercise is scarce in a campaign schedule, but low-carb grazing through the nonstop buffets helped me drop 24 pounds). It was all those nights in all those hotel rooms, crying into the telephone, not about which videographer to hire, but about being apart.

Seems there's one more thing that wasn't the hardest part, doing her job. Look, I'm not a huge fan of celebrity profiles, but while increasing her name and profile by doing them, it was hard to question Barbara Walters' committment to her job. Whether it was a head of state or a movie star, if something came up, the results that aired gave the impression Walters was giving her full attention to that task. Now Wilgoren might not wish to be a pioneer the way Walters has been. It's certainly her right to choose her own path. But is this the attitude one expects from a reporter at one of the most important papers in the nation covering a presidential campaign?

Could no one have pulled her aside and told her they had an opening in soft news? Maybe softened the blow by saying, "And I understand Calvin's got some lovely bridal dresses in the show you'll be reporting on?" I don't get the impression that Christian Parenti would be rushing to the web and using the cell phone from Afghanistan to plan his own wedding while waiting for violence to erput. I don't think Parenti would write, "Or that frustrating August when I was stuck covering an attack on ____ while back home, my bride-to-be was picking out china patterns." I doubt Christiane Amanpour's plotting social events while covering hate crimes in France: "The victim's still not here! Get me my day planner!" Maybe I'm wrong.

But this goes to a level of professionalism in their job. When Parenti's writing or Amanpour's broadcasting, they are informing their readers and viewers of facts, not trivia. So if it turned out that either were addicted to X-box and spent every other moment concentrating on that, who could criticize?

Wilgoren was not showing the level of professionalism that this reader expects. She's not the only one. And possibly her lack of experience on the campaign trail led her to believe that this was the way campaigns should be covered. Or perhaps the Times feels that issues aren't something to be addressed when we can learn of valets or clothing or contractions or some other issue that's not going to pay for you or your child's dental bills or put food on your table or, for that matter, effect America's standing in the court of world opinion.

I stated before that Wilgoren set herself up to be an easy target. And I've stated that this is my theory for one of the reasons her "reporting" was so sloppy. But, at any point, the Times could have stepped in. That they didn't implies that they were happy with the articles she completed.

I'm not. I'm not happy with the lack of serious attention to issues or serious discussions of them in the paper. Someone asked, in a column, if we were electing a Prom King or a president? (I'm sure a reader will advise me on who wrote the column but I'm blanking right now.) That's a question that the press coverage on the campaign begs not only be asked but be answered.

And it's not just Wilgoren, nor is it just the ones covering the Kerry campaign. The reporters (in general) for the mainstream press that covered the Bush campaign didn't do a better job than the ones covering the Kerry campaign. But that's an issue for a right wing blog to cover. We're focusing on the coverage of the Kerry campaign here. (Matt Taibbi covered the press coverage of the campaigns for the New York Press. To read his comments on the Times' Elisabeth Bumiller's coverage of the Bush campaign click here . WARNING: Some language may be objectionable in some work place environments so click at your own risk.)

Barack Obama can speak to Letterman and honestly state that one of Kerry's campaign mistakes was wind surfing. And if he was referring to it because of the way the press covered it, he's entirely right.

I have a friend whose make-it-or-break-it issue is the environment. She cares about other things but if you're not a friend of the environment, you're not someone she's going to cheer for.

And at election time, if you get her vote, it's only because she's decided your opponent is more anti-environment than you are. So in July of this year, right before the convention, I was surprised when she stated she'd like to vote for Kerry but he's not very environmental.

Unlike me, she can still stomach TV news and often watches CNN in addition to one of the big three's evening broadcasts. The environment is her big issue. And she's wishing that she could vote for Kerry but he's not very environmental? She's an intelligent person. She's watching television news to keep up with the issues and what's going on in our world.

But apparently in none of the hours she watched did anyone bother to emphasize that, according to the League of Conservation Voters, Kerry was "one of America's premier environmental leaders." Or that the LCV gave him a "Lifetime Environmental Voting Record" of 96% and that, out of nine of the 16 ratings periods, he scored 100%. Or how about the fact that he helped organize the first Earth Day in 1970?

This wasn't deemed news. Kerry wind surfing was judged to be news. I gave a speech after the election where I stated, "Your media has failed you." And it has. And we're all suffering, as a nation, from media damage.

The false narrative of "red" states tells you that based on "values" the "red" states voted for Bush. As Frank Rich of The New York Times has noted, we're talking about 22% of the voters.

Not a majority, not even a third of voters, identified this as their "issue." The press wants to run with it and we're not apparently going to explore what "values" means (to those who cited it or the rest of the people who voted). But we are going to have superficial discussions on it in the mainstream while acting as though it was the only concern on the mind of voters, this undefined "issue."

To judge what issues mattered in the campaign, perhaps the media should address which issues (and trivia) they chose to embrace? And when judging the Kerry campaign's turnout in states that they didn't even make campaign priorities, we might want to consider the type of "informed" coverage they were left with since their state wasn't deemed a battle ground.

On Ring of Fire (the same episode repeats later today, Sunday, see Part III for the schedule and where the archives for the show can be found), Bobby Kennedy made the point about how you've got people in their cars and what they're hearing, if they're listening to "news," is often AM radio which tilts overwhelmingly to the right. This is a media issue. And when you're dealing with a rural area or a small town area, people are traveling mainly in cars. If they are tuning in to NPR, they are facing the kind of "reporting" that Kyle notes in an e-mail where Cokie Roberts tells Morning Edition listeners that Osama bin Laden's latest tape has him sounding like Michael Moore. She's not explaining what ObL said, Kyle notes, she's giving a pop cultural reference and apparently that's "cool" enough that we shouldn't be bothered by the fact that she's failed to inform us what was on the tape. (Yes, there is Satellite Radio, but, no, a majority of Americans do not have access to it in their homes, let alone in their cars.)

So when someone argues that Kerry or his message or his plan couldn't compete with the "values" they maintain Bush offered, it needs to be noted that most Americans who were trying to follow the campaign were short changed by the media. It is not as though Kerry's health care plan, for instance, got as much attention in the mainstream media as did Dean's "scream" or Kerry's wind surfing. This myth operates under the mistaken assumption that when offered up the details about Kerry's record or his plans, voters said, "You know what, thanks for explaining that to me, but Bush's values just mean more to me than any of that."

That didn't happen. But some reporters and campaign "experts" are trying to tell you that it did. What's in it for the Democratic campaign "experts" who keep putting forth this "red" state-values myth?

There are people who are working seriously on the issue of reframing and have been working on that issue during the campaign. (Buzzflash offers both a book on this and a DVD at for those interested.) These people are interested in how you take what we stand for as a party and translate that into words that are more easily understood. George Lakoff is doing strong work and deserves to be noted for it.

But there's another element that's trying to jump on Lakoff's bandwagon not to take a complex message and put it into simpler terms, but to argue that "reframing" means we need to drop certain stances. For instance, the Democratic party is too identified with pro-choice. Rather than explain that position, we should drop it. Or we're too GLBT friendly and, rather than explain our position, we should drop it.

That's not reframing. That's distorting what Lakoff and others have been working on. And as the e-mailer who's e-mail kicked off this series in "Red" States Part I noted:

Strip away the party base and strip away what the party has stood for and you're next presidential candidate will rightly be dubbed a "flip-flopper."

We'll discuss this more in the next installment but the point of this one was media damage and how this "red" state narrative of "values" is based on the mistaken assumption that voters were presented with the information they needed by the mainstream media to make an informed decision but then chose this undefined term of "values."

[Note: Jack e-mailed me correcting a statement I'd written. The statement has been changed in this post. Former president George H.W. Bush was not on top of another man during the sky diving referred to above (as I had wrongly remembered), he was strapped beneath another man. Jack writes, "There's a world of a difference between a top and a bottom." Thanks for catching that for me, Jack. He provided a link to a web page with the photo, WARNING: I've only looked at the photos, if there's objectionable language on the page that could get you into trouble if you're viewing this on a work computer you are clicking at your own risk. To see the photo click It's the third photo from the top. Also, heads up, the link takes you to a right-wing blog.]