Fried squirrel, politics and the media

Some followup notes from my delightful conversation this morning on KNPR’s State of Nevada, with host Dave Berns and his panel of so-called “witty academics.” (The audio with David Damore, Ken Fernandez and me from University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Eric Herzik of University of Nevada, Reno, is here.)

During the show, I mentioned a wonderful resource at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which has been running a campaign coverage index showing how much attention the media is giving each presidential candidate. This one, covering the week of Jan. 6 through Jan. 11, shows Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton got far more media attention for her New Hampshire “comeback” than did the also victorious Republican Senator John McCain, who had not won in Iowa. Moreover, this index suggests that Democrat John Edwards is almost being ignored by the media.

One person who called in to the show wondered if the media is shying away from him because of Edwards’ criticism of the kind of big corporations that own the media. I wasn’t as articulate as I would have liked to have been on air, so here is an addendum:

My two cents is that this is more a reflection of “pack journalism” than any philosophical thing on the part of the journalists. I could be wrong, but news organizations are lousy places to pull off a controlled conspiracy thing — they’re generally too blessed disorganized and full of ornery back-talkers.

The screw ups I’ve seen over the years stem more from laziness and fear than some order from on high. The fear comes two ways. First, there’s the fear of getting beaten. If everyone else is covering Candidate X, you’d better do it too or you will look stupid. Second, there is the fear of someone yelling at the publisher because a reporter didn’t cover their event — or because a reporter asked impolite questions. That is very real and very true.

I was pressured that way in my coverage of Texas gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush, as I wrote about here.

Fortunately, everyone seems to have a digital camera and a recorder these days, along with access to free publishing tools on the Web. So it’s a lot harder for candidates and their spinmeisters to squelch things.

Also, I didn’t have a chance during the show to mention a couple of other fine journalism resources for election information. The Las Vegas Sun’s ace database folks put together a truly nifty interactive map that shows voting, party affiliation and contribution information by Zip Code for Clark County. Check it out and play with it — the data tells the story.

And another friend of mine over at Congressional Quarterly sent me a link to CQ Politics Primary Guide — nice stuff and good, accessible information.

Now, a reward for reading this far down.

I really wasn’t joking about Republican candidate Mike Huckabee claiming to have fried squirrel on a popcorn popper in college.

Here thanks to the good folks at Talking Points Memo, is the video:

Just because I am a calloused, cynical journalist, I do wonder if a popcorn popper actually gets hot enough to fry a squirrel.

But then, I wonder about a lot of things.

Perhaps some enterprising reporter will put it to a truth test.

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Telling the truth, not just the facts

Note: I was asked to be on Nevada Public Radio’s KNPR State of Nevada program on Oct. 2 with host Dave Berns and Marvin Kitman discuss Kitman’s piece in The Nation Magazine proposing that CBS Evening News hire Keith Olbermann, the opinionated host of Countdown on MSNBC. Here’s a link to the audio from the show. which also included a lively discussion of whether the notion of “objectivity” in journalism is still valid. Below is what I wrote about in advance of the conversation:

In a corner of my jewelry box, tucked inside a fold of pink velvet fabric, lies a small, gold-colored pin in the shape of a motorcycle.

Motorcycle pin

Someone on Texas Governor Ann Richards’ staff handed me that pin during a particularly broiling day on the campaign trail in the summer of 1994.

I was a business reporter for the Dallas Morning News and had flown that morning to the Texas border town of McAllen to watch her speak and to wait in the wings until I could interview her on the flight back to Austin.

It was well past dark, but her trademark bouffant was still impeccable when she finally climbed into the small plane, slid wearily into a bench seat, and then used her toes to push her shoes off under the table between us.

Looking back, it’s clear that was a pivotal moment in history. Richards’ race for re-election against challenger George W. Bush marked the first statewide election since the 1991 demise of the Dallas Times Herald, where many of us worked in the 1980s. Over on the Gulf Coast, the once powerful Houston Post was taking its final gasps on life support, thanks to the blood-sucking ways of Billie Dean Singleton. In the spring of 1995, Hearst Corp. would buy the Post’s corpse and eliminate any competition for the legendarily lethargic Houston Chronicle. In South Texas, Hearst had already bought the San Antonio Express-News from Rupert Murdoch in 1992 and then extinguished its own paper across the street, the Light.

It was the end of the great Texas newspaper wars, a 20-year run that began when Los Angeles-based Times Mirror bought the Times Herald and lit a fire under the newsroom, releasing an energy that produced some dazzlingly superb journalism there, across the street and across the state. Snuffing that spirit marked the beginning of the overthinking, overcautious, underdelivering, arrogantly boring era of newspapers. The survivors embarked on a death march to become the least offensive to the powers-that-be and the most irrelevant to their readers.

The motorcycle pin, a trinket for Richards’ donors, was a souvenir of the irreverence and the spunk that had pervaded Texas journalism. It was a nod to the July 1992 Texas Monthly magazine cover that depicted Richards in a fringed white leather outfit, astride a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle, framed by the headline, “White Hot Mama.”

She’d gotten a motorcycle license for her 60th birthday (here’s a picture) and the Monthly immortalized (and romanticized ) the moment.

Richards was tougher than leather. She could wield words like a stiletto, and never lose her smile. “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth,” she famously said of George W.’s father during her keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention.

But that night on the plane, she was the opposite of a sound bite. Asked about “bidness,” as some called it in Texas, she talked about education. She couldn’t say enough about the importance of investing in children’s education today to ensure the economy’s health tomorrow. The former schoolteacher didn’t lecture, she just talked.

I remember being struck by how much “there” there was beneath the silver hair. While the engines droned on through the dark Texas sky, Richards the philosopher spoke clearly, thoughtfully, and in long, articulate sentences that showed her deep appreciation for the complexity of people, the economy, the state of Texas and life.

That didn’t interest my editors in the least.

My first draft, which quoted her extensively, was, in their view, not properly critical. To rectify that, the story went through the food processor of a committee-edit. What emerged included one paraphrase of one sentence from Richards, lots of remarks from her “critics” and a statement in her defense from an aide. The editors were then satisfied that the story was suitably fair and balanced.

The story that was published did many things, but it didn’t tell the truth.

Ann Richards lost the election. She was replaced in the governor’s mansion by a swaggering young man who pretends to this day to be a Texan.

In March of 1995, the New York Times Magazine published a lengthy question and answer article on some newly private citizens, including Richards with New York’s Mario Coumo and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut.

My husband read that piece at the time and pointed it out to me as something worth reading.

“I had no idea she was so philosophical,” he said. I winced, wishing for a do-over.

In the years since then, the little motorcycle pin hasn’t tarnished.

But newspapers have continued to shed their luster and their verve, going out of their way to avoid the kind of smart, fearless journalism practiced almost to her dying day by my onetime colleague, Times Herald alum and loyal friend of Ann Richards, Molly Ivins.

Without the truth serum of competition, the ideal at newspapers seems to be toothlessness and truthlessness.

Stories are recitations of “he-said, she-said,” while a sanctimonious cloak of objectivity is supposed to somehow justify the lack of context, perspective or real meaning. Any article that dares suggest straightforwardly that the president is lying is tucked into an inside page.

If the truth gets out, perhaps that is because the reporter slipped the essence of the story in the graphic next to the article to “sneak” it into the paper, as a friend of mine once did at the Dallas Morning News.

Instead of flailing against the Internet, television, talk radio, bloggers or the external demon du jour, perhaps newspaper editors should give up the shallow facade of objectivity and reinject some old fashioned truth-seeking and truth-telling. (Here at PolitiFact, for instance, they’re even brave enough to call things true or false!)

Because thanks to the moveable type of publishing technology, the competition’s back in town. And they will win readers away with the simple siren song of truth.

I was “Rove’d,” but he didn’t leave prints

Jay Rosen has some provocative things to say today about how well Karl Rove played the press corps and how, in his opinion, members of the media aren’t writing everything they know about Rove’s wily ways.

I really, really respect Jay, but I think he’s gone coastal on us here — East Coastal. News flash: There is a media outside of D.C. and New York, and we sometimes do work that’s above average.

My former colleague at the Dallas Morning News, Wayne Slater, co-authored a dandy little book about Rove called “Bush’s Brain.” The book is loaded with detailed stories of how Rove worked the media, and how members of the Texas media wrote about what Rove did and how he used them or tried to use them against his political opponents.

The book quotes an article Slater wrote for the News in 1999, in which he named Rove as the newspaper’s source of damaging information about a former Texas State Railroad Commissioner. When that news was published in 1992, it ended the woman’s political career.

And take this paragraph from “Bush’s Brain,” in the chapter Battles and Wars:

As Slater and other journalists traveling on the Bush Campaign knew, using operatives to attack opponents, leaking harmful information, or turning rumors into weapons, as was being done against McCain, was not a new tactic for Karl Rove. If traveling reporters did not know how Rove had used those tactics in the past, they did now. In campaigns at the state level, he had also used surrogates to blast opponents with leaks, whisper campaigns, and rumors while his clients remained above the fray. A Rove candidate was always able to honestly argue that he was running a clean, issues-oriented campaign because Rove stirred up the dirt without involving his client. He made phone calls to reporters, supplied documents, and produced third-party groups with damaging allegations. This approach, already a template for the modern electoral campaign, was refined by Rove with a deadly new precision.

There are many instances in the book where Slater names names and quotes reporters talking about specific things Rove did. Slater also quotes Rove in a sizzlingly threatening conversation over an article that Slater wrote about him in the News in 1999.

I’m not among the reporters quoted in the book, because when I was “Rove’d” he left no fingerprints, only whispers. It was 1994, and I had just finished interviewing Texas gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush for an article about his business background. Among other things, I asked Bush if he was aware that Harken Energy, where he was a director, was about to report a lousy quarter when he sold his stake in the company. When Bush sold 212,140 shares in June 1990, Harken stock was $4 a share. Weeks later, when the company announced staggering losses for the second quarter, the stock tumbled to $2.38 on the news.

Bush had maintained that even though he was on the Harken board’s audit committee, he wasn’t privvy to the company’s financial woes, and therefore hadn’t purposely sold ahead of the bad news. But fellow board member Stuart Watson had told me in an earlier interview that he and Bush had insisted on being kept abreast of all gory details of the struggling company.

“You bet we were. We were both trying to keep that company on the straight and narrow,” Watson had told me.

Watson subsequently told me he got a phone call from someone in the Bush campaign and at the urging of the caller, he telephoned my editors at the Dallas Morning News to say he hadn’t said what I quoted him saying.

Fortunately, the tape recorder I had put in plain view on the coffee table in the Watson’s living room when I interviewed him was working just fine. I had Watson’s words preserved, and quoted him accurately in the article I wrote.

Can I say for sure that it was a Rove “disinformation” trick? No. And that’s my alibi for not writing about it at the time.

But some folks in the Texas media did write about Rove’s bullying and disinformation tactics with reporters, both in news articles at the time and later in books. It irritates me no end that people in other time zones weren’t paying attention.

And that brings to mind another one of Molly Ivins’ fabulous lines:

“The next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States,” she wrote, “please, pay attention.”