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Aug. 8, 2013, noon

Summer Reading 2013: “1-800-PRESIDENT” (1993)

“What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the life of the rest of the country.”

Editor’s Note: The Nieman Foundation turns 75 years old this year, and our longevity has helped us to accumulate one of the most thorough collections of books about the last century of journalism. We at Nieman Lab are taking our annual late-summer break — expect limited posting between now and August 19 — but we thought we’d leave you readers with some interesting excerpts from our collection.

These books about journalism might be decades old, but in a lot of cases, they’re dealing with the same issues journalists are today: how to sustain a news organization, how to remain relevant, and how a vigorous press can help a democracy. This is Summer Reading 2013.

1-800-PRESIDENT by Kathleen Hall Jamieson et al.

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In 1992, Bill Clinton ran for president against George Bush (and Ross Perot) and won. In 1993, the Twentieth Century Fund (today, reasonably, just The Century Foundation) commissioned a report on the role that the press — specifically, television news — played in that campaign. As Richard Leone, president of the foundation, put it in his forward: “Television coverage was intense, but no one seemed happy with it.”

Over a dozen journalists and researchers contributed to the report, which was published, along with three “background papers,” under the remarkable title 1-800-PRESIDENT. (1992 was the year that candidate Jerry Brown’s key innovation was repeating a 1-800 number at every event and appearance to drive donations.) Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Penn professor and author of over a dozen books on media and the presidency, wrote an essay on the “subversive effects of a focus on strategy in news coverage of presidential campaigns,” and Thomas Patterson, our friend and a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, provided a paper called “Let the Press Be the Press: Principles of Campaign Reform.”

A third paper was written by New Yorker writer Ken Auletta. In “On and Off the Bus: Lessons from the Campaign of ’92,” Auletta gets into detail about what it’s like to cover the day-to-day of a political campaign in a news environment dominated by talk shows and TV personalities. He expresses the mindset of a campaign reporter struggling to distinguish gossip from news after months of hearing the same stump speeches over and over again, and how candidates ultimately sought more direct communication with voters when the press focused on issues other than the ones the candidates wanted to talk about. (Any of that sound familiar?)

With Barack Obama conducting Google Hangouts and emails from the First Lady landing in our inboxes, the question of what role the press plays in politics is still a relevant one. The mainstream media’s share of access to the citizenry has shrunk. Next time you hear someone complain about Obama’s tense relationship with the Washington press corps, remember Clinton handing out VHS tapes on the trail:

Kerrey and Tom Harkin and Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown fretted about Clinton, but on the eve of the nation’s first primary, the governor of Arkansas knew his main foe was the media, the hive of reporters interposing itself between him and the voters. He knew he had to escape the incessant questions about Gennifer Flowers and her impact on the polls, escape questions about how he had eluded the military draft three decades ago. He had to get back to talk about about the economy, to showing that he was not a slick, draft-dodging male bimbo. So Clinton struggled to bypass the media middleman. Twice he purchased a half-hour on local TV to take direct questions from viewers. HIs staff distributed twenty-thousand video tapes to voters. He appeared at rallies all over the state. Clinton was determined to meet some voters.

He did not always succeed. He was trapped in a new version of a familiar pastime: the Political Insider Game. Novelist and essayist Joan Didion, who dropped in on the 1988 presidential campaign as if she were visiting another planet, wrote this in the November 1988 New York Review of Books.

When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life… What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the life of the rest of the country.

…Which brings us to Act Two of the 1992 campaign: post-Perot. The date citizens first froze the attention of the press and the candidates was February 20, 1992, the night H. Ross Perot appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” viewer call-in show. Asked if her were “any scenario in which you would run for president” Perot responded that he might — if citizens in each of the fifty states organized and “on your own” got his name on the ballot.

Perot was treating citizens as participants, not spectators, much as FDR did with his fireside radio chats in the 1930s. Perot told King he wished “that everybody in this country would start acting like an owner,” and recognizing the power of technology to eliminate the press or party middleman. By using satellites, he could stay home and take to voters all over America, bypassing the networks and the “boys on the bus.” He could take some of the frantic quality out of a campaign, the hopscotching from airport to airport, the mindless photo ops. One day, Perot knew, citizens would be able to vote at home. One day soon they could have what he called an “electronic town hall.” If he were elected president, Perot said, the first thing he would do would be to create a direct democracy through electronic town halls.”

POSTED     Aug. 8, 2013, noon
PART OF A SERIES     Summer Reading 2013
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