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Diplomacy in Action

The Role of the Media in U.S. Elections

David Mark, Senior Editor, POLITICO
Washington, DC
March 23, 2012

1:00 P.M., EST


MR. MARK: Great to see everybody here on this wonderful Washington Friday with the sun shining and the cheery blossoms out. It’s that time of the year, I know, having been a Washington resident for a while, because I start sniffling and my allergies start coming out. So if I sound a little stuffed up, it’s because of all the wonderful trees and foliage down here by the National Mall with this great weather.

But thanks for coming out today. We’re here as this presidential race is, I would say, getting going, but it’s sort of stuck in a slow period and it’s almost in neutral, because of course, we know President Obama will be re-nominated by the Democrats but the Republican nomination is still kind of an open question. It looks like Mitt Romney will get that nomination, but there’s still a ways to go and various things could happen or it could just take a while for him to actually claim it.

So we’re here in the media just kind of watching this go on and on and trying to figure out what the general election is going to look like, presumably between President Obama and Mitt Romney. And it’s – in a way, it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times. And it’s frustrating because it’s slow-moving and we’re sort of hearing the candidates give the same speeches repeatedly without a lot of news actually breaking.

At the same time, it’s really a great time to be a journalist following the presidential campaigns because – and also the Senate, House, gubernatorial, and other races in American politics, because there’s so many new ways of putting out information, of disseminating it, and the rules in many ways are always changing. Even from the 2008 campaign, the time warp, the speed at which news disseminated, has moved up so much. That was – 2008 was when Twitter was just getting going as a social networking tool. Some people were using it on the campaigns, but I would say not really extensively to get out their news. Now Twitter is an integral part of the campaigns. It’s also a very important way for journalists to pick up information. It’s actually one of my main news sources to get information. I still get it from the same places – The New York Times, Washington Post, and of course Politico and many others – but it’s all aggregated and brought there for you.

So it’s a changing news cycle and news world in which journalists are operating, and it’s really kind of fascinating to watch. One other thing to note about that is in recent years, I’d say even as recently as 15 years ago, the emphasis in campaigns and political coverage was trying to win the news cycle, get something out for the next morning’s newspaper that was going to drive the day. Now there really is no news cycle anymore. It’s whatever comes in. News can break, and as soon as that happens, everybody is scrambling to get up the latest news about it, to tweet, to put it on Facebook, to try and find some analysis.

It depends what it is. If it’s a presidential candidate dropping out of the race, you no longer are going to wait until you read the paper the next morning to get that kind of information, to find out what happened with the candidate and the analysis. Now you have that within hours. And at Politico, that is certainly our operating premise. We don’t assume that people are going to wait for several hours to get their news. They – if they’re looking to Politico, they are expecting to get analysis, news, information, within a couple of hours, within a relatively short period of time.

And I think that’s really kind of made all of us journalists sort of adjust our game a little bit in that we all now have to be ready for news to break at any time and for us to be able to talk about it and have our sources ready that we can contact and get information from in short periods of time.

We also have to be all prepared to disseminate and get out our information, distribute it, in different ways. Not – it may not be that traditional 1,200-word news story that it would take several hours to write. You might be getting the news quickly over Facebook or Twitter or some other mechanism like that in which we’re really trying to push out that information and get it out there in bits and pieces, and also try and drive as much information and interest in that information – in those news stories as possible.

One of the techniques that’s often being used these days is to and break up news stories into little bits and chunks of information. So that rather than having one 3,000 word story, say in The New York Times in which it might be a candidate biography, you give little pieces, little vignettes over a period of a few days, and kind of parcel that out so that readers can then get that information on a piecemeal basis. But it has more impact and punch than in previous times.

Many news organizations also still have their print publications. I mentioned that news organizations don’t want to necessarily wait to hold onto their best news for the newspapers the next day, but it’s still very important for news organizations to have that print publication. That includes Politico, because a good chuck of advertising revenue still comes from the print publications. And it’s not that news organizations are holding on to these for reasons of nostalgia because they like the old-style newspaper. It’s because that’s where a lot of the advertising revenue still comes from, to be perfectly blunt about it. And there’s just not enough advertising revenue to be able to support online ventures only. There’s a few news organizations like that who could support themselves online only: The Wall Street Journal, a few other places, but very few. It’s really the exception rather than the rule. So certainly the economics of the news business are driving how we’re getting – we’re delivering information and how journalists and other readers, of course, are getting it.

One other thing I wanted to mention and then I want to kind of just throw it open to everybody’s questions, is kind of the idea of basic fairness and balance that we face in covering campaigns. And this is a constant challenge. It’s something we’re facing a lot right now. Because as we speak, the Republican candidates – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul – are continuing to fight it out among themselves. Naturally, they’re going quite negative on each other. They’re saying things; they’re running advertisements about each other that cast the other – their opponents in a disparaging way. And it’s really easy for the media to kind of focus in on those negatives about the things they’re saying about each other or that are being said about them, whether it’s Mitt Romney’s campaign spokesman comparing him to an Etch-a-Sketch, or criticizing Rick Santorum for some of the more controversial statements that he said with Mitt Romney going after him, Newt Gingrich is loaded full of controversies and what might be called baggage over the years. And it’s really easy just to cover these Republican candidates day after day and write about all the negative things.

But it’s important for us to also kind of step back and take a broader look at how we’re covering this, to say are we really giving enough scrutiny to the Obama presidential campaign? After all, there’s plenty to look at there. President Obama initially pledged not to support any Super PACs. These are these outside spending groups and entities that can give unlimited resources. They’ve been very active on the Republican side. President Obama sort of changed his tune on that, so I think that’s one area that deserves some scrutiny, where fundraising is coming from.

Today is the two-year anniversary of the health care law that passed under the Obama Administration. How popular is that? Is it really working as planned? Those are all areas that I think I’ll leave it to others to decide their own views on that.

But I think it’s up to journalist to kind of ask those questions and really delve into that, and make sure that we’re not just covering one side. It’s really easy when you have an incumbent sitting president to give them a lot of free publicity. I remember this from President Bush – George W. Bush in 2004. Just the fact that they fly in on Air force One and they have the President of the United States seal at the podium, and everything they do is watched and scrutinized so closely, they can get inordinate attention. And it’s just important to try and balance out coverage so that each side gets at least similar levels of scrutiny, maybe not the same amount, but something in the same range that everybody is getting examined and looked at up close. And with that, I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions.

MODERATOR: Any questions? Okay.



MODERATOR: Hold up – wait.


MODERATOR: When you want to ask a question, please wait for the mike and please state your name and your media organization.

QUESTION: I’m Brian Beary from Europolitics. Just maybe following up on the latest – the Etch A Sketch issue, is it your sense from following previous campaigns that – well, first of all, that a comment like that can hurt in the long-term as the months progress, but also on the substance that specifically Mitt Romney will face increasingly difficult time getting rid of the impression that he has no values. What’s your take? Can you get around that sort of – the flip-flopper accusation?

MR. MARK: I think these gaffes and mistakes really hurt when it plays into a preset narrative about a candidate, in other words, what people already think about a candidate. And I think that’s really the case here with Mitt Romney. There have been these charges and accusations of flip-flopping, changing positions for years now. And when you have your own campaign spokesman suggest it, that means that it kind of plays into the narrative.

If you only make a mistake once in a while, I think you kind of get the benefit of the doubt. Even President Obama has misspoke on the campaign trail. Everybody does it. And that’s –generally my view is that you shouldn’t go after one-time mistakes. Any of us who do public speaking, we all make mistakes, and sometimes you have a wrong fact or figure, you don’t articulate or phrase something as well as you might have. Look, we all have bad days. I think that’s forgivable. But when you get accused of something and this is your reputation and something happens that plays into that narrative, that’s very damaging. So I think that’s why it’s really hurt Romney.

I think the best thing they could hope for now, the Romney campaign, is that some other big news develop and kind of wipe it off the screen. That’s what usually happens. So far, they haven’t really – there’s not been any huge political news over the last couple days or so. So it’s kind of continuing to go on and on. It’ll be interesting to see if the Obama campaign picks up on this as a weapon – a political weapon of choice. It may be old news.

It’s also possible to overplay these things. I think the joke’s kind of been played out at this point. Both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich showed up at campaign rallies with Etch A Sketches in their hands within a couple of hours after the statement. So at a certain point, it kind of gets played out and it may actually fade away.

MODERATOR: Any other questions?

QUESTION: I have a question.

MR. MARK: Sure.

QUESTION: Will you address the role of television in elections, how important it is? Because candidates spend all that money on television, it must be important.

MR. MARK: Yeah. It’s a great question. Television, since the 19 – early 1950s has been the driving force in presidential politics and political campaigns generally. It’s still quite important – I would say central to political campaigns but not quite in the same way as it used to be.

I think what we’re seeing now on television are the use of specific – specifically tailored political ads on local cable channels and elsewhere in which candidates are sometimes cutting five or six different versions of the same commercial depending on what state they’re trying to gain votes from, whether it’s Colorado or Florida or Texas, whatever it might be. They might focus more on immigration, education, national defense, whatever it is to really hone in on those specific topics that the local viewers might want to get.

So the – so campaigns are still spending a lot on television, just on different ways. And I still maintain that television has had a – played a vital role in this campaign so far. In states that Rick Santorum has done well, like Mississippi, Alabama, North Dakota, Minnesota, you can get away with more what’s called retail campaigning, going out and just meeting people, going to restaurants, festivals, and just shaking hands because the populations are smaller. But if you’re trying to win in a mega-state like Ohio, Michigan, Florida – these are all states that Rick Santorum lost and Mitt Romney won – it’s very difficult to do that retail campaigning. You really do need those TV ads.

And that’s where I think television has made a big difference. Romney outspent Santorum by a magnitude of six or seven to one in those states, perhaps more in some places. A lot of those ads were harshly negative. A lot of the ads also came from Super PACs, from the outside groups that are technically not supposed to coordinate with the candidates themselves. So it’s played a big role, but it’s very much a changing role, and one that I think we’re going to continue to see evolve in the next few months, next several months, up through Election Day.

QUESTION: Thanks. Thank you. Betty Lin of the World Journal. Can you tell us why the media didn’t like Howard Dean when – well, they turned up the volume when he did his thing? And do all the media do that?

MR. MARK: Yeah. That’s another example of kind of, I think, what might be called backpack journalism, where you give the same story that everybody else is and you play into a narrative about a candidate. You’re, of course, referring to the incident back in the 2004 Democratic primary where Howard Dean gave that infamous scream – I won’t try to imitate it here – to fire up a campaign group in Iowa. By that point – it’s important to remember, by that point, he was already on the downward slide. He had lost Iowa. He had come in third. And he was really doing it as a way to kind of pep up and cheer on his own campaign.

And I think the media kind of gave him a hard time over it. It wasn’t – it probably wasn’t particularly fair, but it did kind of play into the notions, the ideas that people already had about the candidate that he was kind of a hothead, that he wasn’t maybe all together, he wasn’t the most organized guy, that he would fly off the seat of – he would fly – kind of say something – say things extemporaneously without thinking them through. And so it kind of played into that same narrative.

And the thing is, once that happens, it’s really hard to take back, and that gets embedded in the minds of – certainly with journalists, and then in the minds of the public. I think it’s kind of unfortunate because it means candidates become more scripted, they’re too careful about what they say, it’s hard to get any real spontaneous moments about what they might – how they might actually feel. But look, if you’re a candidate for president, it goes with the territory.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Matthias Kolb. I work for Sueddeutsche. It’s a major German news website. And I would be interested to hear what you think about cable networks like Fox News, MSNBC, and also, like those talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, because my impression, when I was covering primary, I’ve heard that – just, like, the GOP people who were coming to events, they only watch Fox News, they don’t care much about facts, they’re not interested what the other side is saying. It’s just like get those snippets and then they want to hear that Obama is to blame for everything.

How – like, what’s your – what are your thoughts about that? And how does it feel for Politico, where you try to, yeah, keep the balance and report facts? Can it be, like – does it (inaudible) frustrating?

MR. MARK: No. Actually, I think it’s great that we have so many different viewpoints. I think it’s the marketplace of ideas. It’s interesting that in the 9:00 p.m. hour, you can watch Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and then flip over to Fox News and you’ll get just a completely different version of events. It’s almost like they’re from two different worlds or something. I can usually only watch them for 10 to 15 minutes at a time; then I get sick of all of them, where I have to move around. And usually, I go to CNN because they’re kind of more down the middle.

But I think it’s great that people have so many different choices. I think the burden there is really on the news consumer to try and get a rounded viewpoint of information. Most people don’t do that. I am not naive about that. But nobody should ever get their news from any one source. That would be entirely unhealthy. I know people on both ends of the spectrum who do that, liberals and conservatives, and it’s literally like they’re just talking past each other because they have such different sets of facts. So I think it’s up to citizens, people living in a democracy, to flip around, take bits and pieces. And in each of those stations, there are little bits that I think are really informative, where they give you – they raise issues that are important. And in other times, they take it way, way over the top and it’s too extreme.

So I think the more channels, the better, and I think there’s also always going to be room for more mainstream, down the middle news organizations like Politico – tout ourselves – but many others – the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, or the – maybe could called just the NewsHour on PBS now, but several other programs – The Washington Post, The New York Times to an extent, though they have their own biases, several others down the line. I think there’s plenty of places where you can read that impartial news and then get the different points of view.

I read magazines, websites from across the spectrum, and even if I disagree with them, I kind of like getting the different points of view. So my view is the more, the merrier.

QUESTION: Hi. Li Ping from China Radio International. I have a couple of questions. The first one is: You mentioned that it’s easy for media to focus on the negative things candidates talk about. I would like to hear your views on the general performance of the American media on the coverage of the campaigns. Do they do pretty well in balancing things out or coverage of different candidates? So this is the first question.

The second question is: People always say the media shape the campaign or the election. To what extent is this still true?

MR. MARK: I think the media actually generally do a good job of covering the campaigns. Remember, it’s a long time period. It goes from a year and a half, sometimes more, up until Election Day, from the early days of the primaries when it really gets going up through the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire primaries, et cetera. I think the media overall do a generally admirable job of vetting the candidates, of looking at their backgrounds, of parsing what they say, comparing it to what they’ve said in the past, seeing that they’re consistent, and kind of weighing them over – against each other. And I think it’s actually a pretty good test for candidates on how they do on the campaign trail. If they can stand the heat, that’s a good test for what you’re going to face once you’re actually President or even in another office, because it’s really hard. You’re going to have the opposition sniping at your constantly, half the country is probably going to disagree with you on any big decision you make, and I think it’s actually a pretty good test.

There are quibbles I have with the media. Sometimes it’s pack journalism. I think this Etch A Sketch story is kind of getting – is a good example of that, with Mitt Romney, where it was kind of funny to begin with, but it seems like it’s really becoming part of the narrative. So I think there are quibbles with how the media does its job, but overall I think their – they do a reasonably good job.

And remember, there are different facets of the media. There are mainstream, down-the-line reporters from Politico and The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, et cetera, and then there are the more partisan news organizations, the ones we discussed on cable TV and magazines, et cetera, ideologically. And sometimes they actually do the best work, because, yes, they have a partisan motivation, they probably want one side to win or not, but if they do the real reporting and dig up facts, their work can be just as valid as anybody else. I think that was the case in 2008 about some of President Obama’s associations before he was in office or looking at Sarah Palin’s background. Sometimes they do come from partisan places, but they can still be worthwhile in many ways.

What was the second question? I should stick to one at a time.

QUESTION: I forgot myself.

MR. MARK: Okay.

QUESTION: How does the media shape public opinion and so on?

MR. MARK: Right. Yeah. Well, the media has a large lens and filter in which it interprets the candidates, decides who’s a serious candidate, who isn’t, who should be taken seriously. And that, of course, filters down to fundraisers, how much money the candidates can raise because they’re seen as somebody who’s getting a lot of publicity, a lot of coverage.

But I think the media only goes so far in that sense, because a lot of candidates who write – who journalists write off and don’t take seriously end up being real serious players – Rick Santorum as a good idea. It was just not that long ago, a few months ago, where nobody was talking about him as a serious candidate, and he was – he had no – didn’t have traveling press, certainly didn’t have Secret Service protection, basically just going around – driving around the country, around Iowa and New Hampshire and a few other places with one or two aides. And he came by our office, into Politico’s office a few months ago – no entourage, nothing like that. Now he’s a big shot with Secret Service protection. He’s the main rival to Mitt Romney. And that was somebody the media did not take seriously. The voters took him seriously. So I think the media – it has an effect, but it only goes so far.

QUESTION: Thank you. Hello. I’m Zuzana Cepla from World Business Press Online News Agency, and I would like to ask you – you mentioned that television of – or the role of the television is not as big as it used to be. So therefore, I would like to ask you how big a role play the new media right now in compare with the regular or traditional media, such as television or radio?

MR. MARK: Right.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. MARK: Yeah. The internet new media generally is playing a huge role. That’s where news breaks now, that you get it on the internet, you don’t wait for the newspaper the next day, you don’t wait for the ABC, NBC, CBS evening news at 6:30 p.m. or whatever time they come on. You get – you break it immediately. And again, you don’t even necessarily wait – have to wait as a journalist to produce a traditional 1,200 word length story that might take several hours to produce. Now you can just get it up as quickly as possible. We’ve seen this happen multiple times with news stories breaking in recent weeks, recent months.

So I’d say the new media is huge. Web video is increasingly being used as a way for journalists to get out the message. Sometimes they – we can create our own web videos where it’s us kind of talking amongst ourselves to try and get out our messages. So I’d say it’s huge and it’s just – it’s growing exponentially and will be even larger probably four – in 2016, next – for the next campaign cycle.

MODERATOR: Any other questions? New York, do you have any questions? No?

MR. MARK: Thanks.