Taking note of candidates’ truth-stretching and opaqueness pushes stories toward contextual overload
I’m reading a little differently these days because I quit the Los Angeles Times (accepting a buy-out offer) in July. I think this will mean more frequent postings on this site. Right now what it means is, I read more like a normal person–a civilian. And I found myself getting cranky yesterday as I read the Los Angeles Times and New York Times accounts of the Labor Day accusation-flinging by the two major presidential candidates.
The stories seemed to be so eager to put the news in perspective for me that sometimes the perspective overwhelmed the news. It was like being a child who had to listen to Daddy’s long-winded preface before he told me why he was taking away my allowance for strangling the cat. This could be as much the fault of the two campaigns, which are engaging in so much disingenuous, hypocritical and awkward behavior that reporters have to act like leaders of a truth squad to remind readers of the candidates’ past behavior.
Either way, the tone of this election puts enormous pressure on writers to simultaneously tell you what happened and where it fits. I thought I’d look at those two Sept. 7 stories as examples.
The L.A. Times’ 1,364-word story included 600 words — 44% of the total story length — of perspective. That means only 56% of the language was devoted to what actually happened. The NYT had fewer, 439 words in a 1,349-word story, or 33%. The biggest disparity was that the L.A. Times alluded to a lot of polling data that the NYT skipped in its mainbar.
One of the L.A. Times writers on the story, Matea Gold, notes properly that there would be no decent political stories without such contextual language “because the players involved are so often trying to recast their opponents’ position or signal something with coded language. Decoding all of that, if you will, is part of our job. Readers aren’t going to remember who said what when, or know whether Bush or Kerry have changed their positions.
“That said,” she added in an e-mail from the road, “I think this year’s campaign has forced us to do more of that than usual, because of several factors. One is that Bush’s criticism of Kerry is, at its heart, that [Kerry] is misrepresenting himself. Truth-squading that charge is important. Secondly, Kerry himself tends to speak in opaque terms, and translating his position, in context of what he’s said before, is essential so readers can decide for themselves what to make of it all.
“And the third factor is that I think the pace of this year’s race has just been so intense that it’s hard to keep up with all the charges and countercharges. If we just wrote a completely straight news story about the back-and-forth Monday over Iraq, without noting how it’s tripped up Kerry in the past, or how [Bush’s and Cheney’s remarks are] part of a larger effort to paint [Kerry] as weak on defense, we would be giving our readers a pretty incomplete picture.”
Here’s a look at the two stories. The perspective material is in CAPS. (I’ll parenthesize my comments.)
We’ll start with the L.A. Times version:
CLEVELAND–Sen. John F. Kerry TOUGHENED HIS CRITICISM OF THE WAR IN IRAQ on Monday, calling it the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But President Bush responded by saying the Democrat’s comments were another example of indecisiveness on the issue.
(Watch how force-fed some of the mext graf sounds, like Daddy’s lecture. The 1,000-war-dead and poll stuff didn’t have to be foreshadowed, at least not so soon.)
THE EXCHANGE UNDERSCORED HOW THE WAR REMAINS A CENTRAL ISSUE OF THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN, PARTICULARLY AS THE DEATH TOLL OF U.S. TROOPS NEARS 1,000. POLLS SHOW THAT A MAJORITY OF AMERICANS QUESTION THE RATIONALE FOR THE WAR. BUT KERRY HAS STRUGGLED AT TIMES TO DISTINGUISH HIS STANCE ON IRAQ FROM BUSH’S, A MATTER THAT HAS BEDEVILED HIS CAMPAIGN FOR MONTHS.
On Monday, Kerry MORE DIRECTLY CHALLENGED THE WAR’S CONSEQUENCES during a morning forum with residents in Canonsburg, Pa.
“This president rushed to war without a plan to win the peace, and he’s cost all of you $200 billion that could have gone to schools, could have gone to healthcare, could have gone to prescription drugs, could have gone to our Social Security,” the Massachusetts senator said.
“And the fact is when they talk about a coalition [of U.S. and foreign troops], that’s the phoniest thing I’ve ever heard,” Kerry said, “You’ve got 500 troops here, 500 troops there, and it’s American troops that are 90% of the combat casualties, and it’s American taxpayers that are paying 90% of the cost of the war.”
(I didn’t like what happened in the previous graf–using a quote that you then have to explain in the next graf.)
Kerry’s latter comment WAS A REFERENCE TO BUSH’S CLAIM THAT THE WAR IS BEING WAGED BY A COALITION OF 30 COUNTRIES. OF THE ROUGHLY 160,000 TROOPS NOW DEPLOYED IN IRAQ, NEARLY 88% COME FROM THE U.S.
Minutes later, when a man asked him when he would bring U.S. troops home, Kerry said he could do it within four years. Until Monday, the Democratic nominee had said he would seek to bring “a significant number” of troops home by the end of his first term, replacing them with soldiers from European and Arab nations.
“My goal would be to try to get them home in my first term, and I believe that can be done,” Kerry said.
THOSE REMARKS PROMPTED BUSH AND HIS ADVISORS TO DO SOME QUICK SPEECH REWRITING on their way to rural southeastern Missouri, where the president ridiculed Kerry.
“After voting for the war and against its funding, and after saying he would have voted for the war even knowing everything we knew today, my opponent woke up this morning with new campaign advisors and yet another new position,” the president told 10,000 supporters in a field in tiny Poplar Bluff.
“Suddenly he’s against it again,” Bush added. “No matter how many times Sen. Kerry changes his mind, it was right for America then and it’s right for America now that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power.”
(Good perspective here:)
Although Kerry engaged in sharp fashion on the war Monday, THE EXCHANGE WAS NOT EXACTLY WHAT HIS CAMPAIGN HAD IN MIND FOR THE DAY’S DEBATE. KERRY’S ADVISORS HAD HOPED TO FOCUS ATTENTION ON BUSH’S CLAIMS THAT JOBS ARE COMING BACK, RELEASING A REPORT SHOWING THAT THE NEW JOBS FEATURE LOW PAY AND MEAGER BENEFITS.
DEMOCRATS ARE WORRIED BECAUSE A SERIES OF NEW POLLS SUGGEST THE PRESIDENT HAS OPENED A LEAD AFTER MONTHS OF A RACE THAT MANY SAY HAS BEEN A STATISTICAL TIE — EVIDENCE THAT BUSH SECURED MOMENTUM FROM LAST WEEK’S REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION.
(But now you gotta ask: Shouldn’t we get back to the news? Instead, the perspective continues.)
SURVEYS FOR TIME AND NEWSWEEK PUBLISHED THIS WEEK GAVE BUSH AN 11-POINT LEAD OVER HIS DEMOCRATIC CHALLENGER.
A NEW POLL RELEASED MONDAY, CONDUCTED BY GALLUP FOR CNN AND USA TODAY, SHOWED A NARROWER RACE, BUT WITH BUSH MAINTAINING A 7-POINT LEAD AMONG LIKELY VOTERS, 52% TO 45%. AMONG REGISTERED VOTERS, BUSH LEADS 49% TO 48%. THE POLL’S MARGIN OF ERROR IS PLUS OR MINUS 3 PERCENTAGE POINTS.
THE NUMBERS SHOW THAT, DESPITE A DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION LAST MONTH DEVOTED ALMOST ENTIRELY TO NEUTRALIZING THE GOP’S ADVANTAGE ON WAR AND NATIONAL SECURITY BY BRANDISHING KERRY’S CREDENTIALS AS A DECORATED WAR HERO, THE DEMOCRATIC NOMINEE HAS IN FACT LOST GROUND WITH VOTERS ON THOSE FRONTS.
(Again, the reader in me says: shouldn’t we get back to the news? Isn’t this a sidebar?)
FIFTY-FOUR PERCENT OF GALLUP RESPONDENTS THINK BUSH IS BETTER EQUIPPED TO HANDLE THE WAR, COMPARED WITH 41% FOR KERRY. ON THE LARGER QUESTION OF WHICH CANDIDATE IS MORE CAPABLE OF HANDLING THE WAR ON TERRORISM, BUSH LEADS 61% TO 37%. BUSH STRATEGISTS SPECIFICALLY CITE KERRY’S MIXED SIGNALS ON IRAQ FOR GIVING VOTERS REASON TO QUESTION HIS ABILITY TO LEAD.
(Okay now we’re going to get back on track)
BOTH BUSH AND VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY ON MONDAY SEEMED TO RELISH THE CHANCE TO HIT KERRY AGAIN ON THE ISSUE OF IRAQ. Cheney attacked Kerry in personal terms in Iowa.
“Demeaning our allies is an interesting approach for someone seeking the office of the presidency,” Cheney told supporters. “When it comes to diplomacy, it looks like John Kerry should stick to windsurfing.”
(Next graf is well-crafted)
BUSH SEEMED TO TARGET KERRY’S REMARKS ON BRINGING TROOPS HOME, TYING THE WARS IN AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ TOGETHER AS IDEOLOGICAL EFFORTS BY THE U.S. TO SPREAD DEMOCRACY.
“We’ll help them move toward elections, we’ll get them to the path of stability and democracy as quickly as possible, and then our troops will return home with the honor they have earned.” Kerry’s advisors insisted that he had not changed his position on Iraq, and during a stop Monday evening in Cleveland, the candidate fired back again.
“When it comes to Iraq, I would not have done just one thing differently,” Kerry added. “I would have done everything differently than this president. Of all of George Bush’s choices, the most catastrophic one is the mess that he put us in Iraq.”
(Kerry made not only his life miserable but reporters’ lives miserable by his language on Iraq; here the story knows it must account for that.)
KERRY HAS REPEATEDLY CRITICIZED BUSH’S HANDLING OF THE WAR, BUT HAS HAD TROUBLE EXPLAINING WHY HE GAVE THE PRESIDENT THE AUTHORITY TO INVADE IRAQ IN 2002. LAST MONTH, KERRY BEFUDDLED ALLIES WHEN HE SAID THAT HE STILL WOULD HAVE GIVEN BUSH AUTHORITY TO INVADE EVEN IF HE HAD KNOWN THERE WERE NOT WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION AS THE ADMINISTRATION AND INTELLIGENCE OFFICIALS HAD SAID.
IN RECENT DAYS, KERRY’S CAMPAIGN HAS TRIED TO TURN THE FOCUS OF THE CAMPAIGN TO DOMESTIC ISSUES SUCH AS UNEMPLOYMENT AND HEALTHCARE THAT THEY SAY REPRESENT THE ADMINISTRATION’S VULNERABILITIES.
(See if you think the next graf is necessary; it was already in the news. Does it help you, or get in the way of the events?)
THE NEW MESSAGE HAS BEEN CRAFTED, IN PART, WITH THE HELP OF ADVISORS TO PRESIDENT CLINTON. JOE LOCKHART, THE FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY, AND JOEL JOHNSON, A FORMER CLINTON ADVISOR, HAVE TAKEN OVER MUCH OF THE CAMPAIGN’S COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY. OTHER ONETIME CLINTON AIDES SUCH AS POLLSTER STANLEY GREENBERG HAVE TAKEN ON MORE PROMINENCE AS INFORMAL ADVISORS.
On Saturday night, Clinton himself gave Kerry extensive advice about campaign strategy, speaking to the candidate from his hospital bed as he prepared to have coronary bypass surgery.
And Kerry, who campaigned in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio Monday, TRIED TO HEED THE ADVICE. He spent most of Labor Day assailing Bush’s domestic policies and accusing the president of abandoning the American worker.
While Bush bragged once again Monday about creating 1.7 million jobs over the last year — including 144,000 new jobs last month — the Kerry campaign responded with a report that many of those jobs offer low pay and inadequate benefits.
Bush drew cheers from the crowd in Poplar Bluff, Mo., when he said the nation’s unemployment rate has dropped to 5.4%, but Kerry aides replied that the drop was because fewer Americans were looking for work.
The Democrat showcased new rhetoric to crystallize his assessment of the Bush administration, declaring that the president’s middle initial stood for “wrong.”
“Wrong choices, wrong judgment, wrong priorities, wrong direction for our country,” Kerry told hundreds of coal miners at a barbecue in Racine, W.Va.
Bush also took some time to talk about domestic matters, continuing to promise that a second term would bring major changes to the nation’s tax laws, designed to simplify paperwork at tax time.
“The tax code weighs heavily on our economy and every American family,” he said. “Sitting down to do your taxes shouldn’t require wading through more than 1 million words worth of complicated rules and regulations.”
THE PRESIDENT DID NOT MENTION THE IDEA MONDAY, but he told a crowd on Saturday in Ohio that a flat income tax is “one option” for fixing the tax laws. Critics say it would unduly harm lower-income workers while lessening the burden on the wealthy.
– – – – – –
Okay, here’s the NYT’s version. It thought Kerry’s four-year pledge warranted the lead, although as the L.A. Times noted, it was something Kerry had said before. (The L.A. Times, I thought properly, was more taken by Kerry’s use of tougher language.)
CLEVELAND — Senator John Kerry and President Bush clashed repeatedly over Iraq on Monday, with Mr. Kerry branding it “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time” and saying he wanted all American troops home within four years, while Mr. Bush defended the war as “right for America then and it’s right for America now.”
(Perspective tries to warn us that we are about to read a story in which two guys are going to say much the same thing they’ve been saying, and that nuance is king. As a reader I could have lived with it lower.)
THEIR CONVENTIONS BEHIND THEM, THE CANDIDATES SPENT LABOR DAY, THE TRADITIONAL START OF THE FALL CAMPAIGN SEASON, DOING WHAT THEY HAVE DONE FOR MONTHS: TRADING ROUNDHOUSE PUNCHES OVER IRAQ, JOB LOSSES AND HEALTH CARE.
Mr. Kerry, who campaigned before blue-collar workers in suburban Pittsburgh and coal miners in West Virginia and in an African-American neighborhood in Cleveland, unveiled a new attack on Mr. Bush, saying voters needed to decide between the president’s “wrong choices and wrong direction for America” and his own promises to create jobs, strengthen the economy and expand access to health care.
“The W stands for wrong,” Mr. Kerry said in a riff on the president’s middle initial at a labor picnic in Racine, W.Va.
BUT IT WAS MR. KERRY’S RESPONSES TO TWO QUESTIONS ABOUT IRAQ THAT SET OFF A FLURRY OF ATTACKS BY MR. BUSH AND VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY.
Asked his timetable for pulling troops out of Iraq, Mr. Kerry told a few hundred people in Canonsburg, Pa.: “My goal would be to get them home in my first term. And I believe that can be done.” He said he would make it clear that “we do not have long-term designs to maintain bases and troops in Iraq.”
MR. KERRY HAS SAID HE COULD REPLACE MOST, BUT NOT ALL, AMERICAN TROOPS WITH FOREIGN FORCES WITHIN FOUR YEARS BY OFFERING NEW INDUCEMENTS TO OTHER COUNTRIES.
“When they talk about a coalition – that’s the phoniest thing I ever heard,” Mr. Kerry said of the current array of foreign soldiers deployed in Iraq. “You’ve got 500 troops here, 500 troops there, and it’s American troops that are 90 percent of the combat casualties, and it’s American taxpayers that are paying 90 percent of the cost of the war.
“It’s the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.
MR. BUSH HAS SAID REPEATEDLY THAT IT WOULD BE UNWISE TO SET A DEADLINE FOR BEGINNING OR FINISHING A PULLOUT OF TROOPS IN IRAQ. TERRORIST GROUPS, HE ARGUES, WOULD USE THE DATE TO THEIR STRATEGIC ADVANTAGE. AND HE OFTEN SAYS THAT AMERICAN TROOPS WILL COME HOME “AS SOON AS THE JOB IS DONE” WITHOUT SPECIFYING THE CRITERIA FOR THE COMPLETION OF THE MISSION.
(See how the NYT story has a more graceful rhythm in its use of perspective? It takes you along for a while, then throws in a graf of perspective. It seems to be more aware of how the reader can comfortably process information.)
In Poplar Bluff, Mo., Mr. Bush told supporters that Mr. Kerry couldn’t make up his mind.
“After saying he would have voted for the war, even knowing everything we know today, my opponent woke up this morning with new campaign advisers and yet another new position,” Mr. Bush said to laughter and to cries of, “Flip-flop. Flip-flop.”
“Suddenly he’s against it again,” Mr. Bush said. “No matter how many times Senator Kerry changes his mind, it was right for America then and it’s right for America now that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power.”
Mr. Cheney, campaigning in Clear Lake, Iowa, criticized Mr. Kerry for “demeaning our allies.”
“When it comes to diplomacy, it looks like John Kerry should stick to windsurfing,” he said.
(Now, deeper into the story, I was willing to read the longest stretch of perspective-four grafs, 154 words-in the NYT story.)
THE EXCHANGE BETWEEN MR. BUSH AND MR. KERRY SPOTLIGHTED HOW THE TWO CAMPAIGNS HAD HONED THEIR MESSAGE ON IRAQ — AND HOW THEY EMPHASIZE DIFFERENT ASPECTS OF THE ISSUE.
MR. BUSH HAS TRIED TO CONVINCE CROWDS THAT HE AND MR. KERRY AGREED ON THE NEED TO GET RID OF SADDAM HUSSEIN, AND THAT MR. KERRY’S POSITION HAS SIMPLY CHANGED WITH THE WINDS AND THE CASUALTY NUMBERS.
MR. KERRY ARGUES THAT THE PRESIDENT HAS DELIBERATELY CONFLATED TWO VERY DIFFERENT ISSUES: WHETHER IT WAS RIGHT TO HOLD SADDAM HUSSEIN ACCOUNTABLE FOR HIS DEFIANCE OF THE UNITED NATIONS, AND WHETHER MR. BUSH, ONCE GIVEN THAT AUTHORITY BY THE CONGRESS, USED IT PROPERLY.
THE ESSENCE OF MR. KERRY’S ARGUMENT — ONE HE HAS HAD A DIFFICULT TIME MAKING — IS THAT MR. BUSH OBTAINED THE AUTHORITY TO GO TO WAR ON FALSE INTELLIGENCE, AND THEN PROSECUTED THE WAR IN A WAY THAT ALIENATED ALLIES AND PROLONGED THE INSURGENCY.
At day’s end on Monday, Mr. Kerry told thousands at a rally that Mr. Bush “wishes I have the same position he does, but as we’ve learned from this president, just wishing something, and saying something, doesn’t make it so.”
“When it comes to Iraq, I would not have done just one thing differently, I would have done everything differently from this president,” he added.
(Nice set-up of the rhetoric follows.)
NOW, HOWEVER, MR. KERRY IS GOING FURTHER, TALKING OF THE ECONOMIC COST OF THE WAR AND HOW THAT MONEY COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER SPENT.
“George Bush’s wrongheaded, go-it-alone Iraq policy has cost you — cost you — already, over $200 billion,” Mr. Kerry said in Cleveland. “That’s $200 billion we’re not investing in Cleveland. That’s $200 billion we’re not investing in our schools and in No Child Left Behind, that’s $200 billion we’re not investing in health care for all Americans and prescription drugs that are affordable.”
(Again, more perspective to preface campaign rhetoric.)
IT WAS A MEASURE OF HOW IRAQ HAS OVERSHADOWED SO MANY OTHER ISSUES IN THE CAMPAIGN THAT IT EVEN DOMINATED ON LABOR DAY, THE MOMENT MR. BUSH HAS OFTEN USED TO FOCUS ATTENTION ON JOB CREATION, ONE OF THE POINTS OF VULNERABILITY OF HIS CAMPAIGN.
THAT ECONOMIC RECORD, OF COURSE, IS MR. KERRY’S MAIN TARGET, AS HE MADE CLEAR IN TRYING OUT A NEW SPEECH.
“The choice in this race is very simple,” Mr. Kerry said. “It’s whether you want to continue to move in the wrong direction, or whether you want to turn it around and move the United States of America in the right direction and put people back to work.”
“Do you want four more years of lost jobs?” he asked, as his crowd shouted, “No!”
“Do you want four more years of shipping jobs overseas and replacing them with jobs that pay you less than the jobs you have today?”
Mr. Kerry said Mr. Bush had the worst record on job creation “since Herbert Hoover.” At the front-porch session in a middle-class neighborhood in Canonsburg on Monday morning, Mr. Kerry fended off pro-Bush hecklers while talking of people earning less money and paying more for health care. Lori Sheldon, 45, stirred in her seat. “You told our story,” she said to him.
Her husband, Ms. Sheldon said, works on a ground crew for US Airways in Pittsburgh and fears he may be laid off in the fall. “You see those two young ladies over there? Those are my daughters,” she said, beginning to sob. “I’m tired of saying no. We say no all the time.”
Mr. Kerry said, “What we need is a president making choices not to reward Halliburton and a bunch of big companies, but reward the American people.”
“I want you to be able to say yes to your kids,” he said.
Mr. Bush’s appearance in Poplar Bluff was his only one of the day. The southeastern Missouri town was so eager to hear him that more than 10,000 people, or nearly two-thirds of the population, signed a petition urging him to visit. When he agreed, the town organized one of the largest rallies of his campaign: more than 23,000 went through metal detectors, ignoring a light evening rain.
The president made a dramatic entrance, with Marine One, his helicopter, landing in a field. . Picking his time frame carefully, Mr. Bush noted that “last Friday, we showed we added 144,000 new jobs in August,” saying that was “1.7 million since August of ’03.”
“The national unemployment rate has fallen to 5.4 percent,” he said. “That is lower than the average rate of the 1970’s, the 1980’s and the 1990’s.”
(The story ends awkwardly with the next graf. It feels like there might have been some quotes after that graf that got cut in the editing process. Without that–maybe even with it–the language in this last graf seems overwrought.)
He spoke about tax simplification and farm exports WITH THE PASSION OF A MAN ACUTELY AWARE THAT HE WON MISSOURI IN 2000 BY ONLY A BIT MORE THAN THREE PERCENTAGE POINTS AND THAT RE-ELECTION WOULD BE ENORMOUSLY DIFFICULT WITHOUT WINNING IT AGAIN.
Remember, these stories were written on deadline, included files from the reporter on each campaign, and were probably subjected to the kind of cram-in-the-perspective editing that sometimes fails to take a final, holistic look at the story to make sure perspective serves the story rather than dominates it. That’s hard enough when you’re covering the clearest-minded candidates; it’s hell with these two camdodates.