< Kucinich Was There

Transcript

Friday, January 19, 2007

BETH FERTIG:
This is On the Media. I'm Beth Fertig.

BOB GARFIELD:
And I'm Bob Garfield.

TIM RUSSERT:
Are you running for president?

JOE BIDEN:
I am running for President.

TIM RUSSERT:
Are you filing for exploratory committee?

JOE BIDEN:
I'll file exploratory committee before the month is out.

TIM RUSSERT:
This month.

JOE BIDEN:
This month.

TIM RUSSERT:
And you're going to take on Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and all other comers?

JOE BIDEN:
I'm going to be Joe Biden, and I'm going to try to be the best Biden I can be, if I can.

DON IMUS:
Senator Chris Dodd, who has announced this morning that he's going to file papers to run for the Presidency and forego the exploratory committee -

JOHN EDWARDS:
- tomorrow morning from this place, I will announce I'm a candidate for President of the United States. What I will do is ask millions of Americans and -

BARACK OBAMA:
And that's why I wanted to tell you first that I'll be filing papers today to create a presidential exploratory committee.

BOB GARFIELD:
Prior to his announcement Tuesday of forming an exploratory campaign committee, Senator Barack Obama was the beneficiary of hundreds of news stories speculating on if and when he would throw his hat in the ring for the Presidency. Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain have been the subjects of thousands of such stories.

Yet in December, when Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich announced his candidacy offhandedly in a interview with The New York Times, the resulting article treated the announcement as an amusing oddity and led to something less than the publicity windfall enjoyed this week by Obama. Kucinich needn't have been surprised. He endured the same treatment four years ago in his quixotic quest for the 2004 Democratic nomination.

Jeff Cohen, founder of FAIR, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, was formerly the candidate's communications director, and he joins us now. Jeff, welcome to OTM.

JEFF COHEN:
Hey, great to be with you.

BOB GARFIELD:
Let's begin with 2004. Characterize the coverage, please, of the Kucinich campaign.

JEFF COHEN:
Dismissive, sneering - that was the good part. The bad part is when they just ignored the candidate altogether. And it's very tough to run for President if your candidate is being ignored, and it's especially excruciating if you're a communications director and you're traveling with your candidate, and he's in a room full of activists and he gets repeat standing ovations – the only candidate out of the eight or nine or ten that participate that gets that kind of reaction. And then you read the newspaper the next day, and your candidate is buried at the bottom.

BOB GARFIELD:
Now, you weren't born yesterday. There's a reason for this phenomenon. What's that reason?

JEFF COHEN:
You and I may differ about the reason. I think that the reasons have to do with elitism on the part of the press corps, that they're too important to be mere reporters. They're too important to report what happened on the campaign trail that day. They're wise men. They're pundits. They're analysts. We know better for the American people who's the serious candidate and who isn't. So even though this guy Dennis Kucinich dominated the room, we're going to tell you about these other candidates that we think are more credible.

Then there's the anti-democratic tendency – small D – anti– democratic. Their belief seems to be that elections are almost for their benefit and their entertainment. But I always thought that elections were for debating ideas.

BOB GARFIELD:
And, in fact, in a piece by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone during the 2004 race, he quoted a reporter on the campaign beat as saying, yeah, if there was a battle of position papers, Kucinich would be credible, but that's not how things work. The consensus on the bus was that Kucinich was just too left-wing, too geeky-looking to be electable.

Now, you know, in spite of their maybe elitist tendencies, these boys and girls on the bus have been around, and, as it turned out, they were right, were they not?

JEFF COHEN:
Well, they were right, if you believe that they weren't part of the process. See, that's the central myth of political reporting. They have this pretense that they're not impacting the process. The reality is that if you don't cover a candidate week after week after week, and if you do cover that candidate, he will be ridiculed in all of the major media, well, then you are impacting the outcome.

BOB GARFIELD:
So the media consensus that a candidate is marginal becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. No coverage equals no name recognition equals not very many votes.

JEFF COHEN:
Right. And, as you say, what was in their minds? Well, they looked at Kucinich, they said, not tall enough. You know, not enough money. Well, the reality is that thanks to the Internet, Kucinich raised 13 million dollars.

BOB GARFIELD:
But as a practical matter, 13 million dollars give that man one white chip. It certainly doesn't begin to amount to the kind of money you need for advertising, travel and the other gigantic costs of a sustained presidential campaign.

And the media can't cover everybody, Jeff. What should the networks and the major papers have done differently in determining how to allocate their reporting resources?

JEFF COHEN:
I mean, if I were an editor at a big daily, I would say, look, this is an election time. This is important in American society, in any democratic society. I want you to cover the proposals that are being put forward by these candidates, and if they have a big base in the Democratic Party, even though it may not be a base of wealth, I want you and your reporting to reflect that this candidate, when he says we should pull America out of the NAFTA trade deal, gets the biggest reaction in the room, that should be reported to our readers the next morning.

And it's my attitude that if they don't want to be political reporters covering the different policies and proposals of the candidates, go into something else. You know, if they want to cover horse races, go work at the sports page.

BOB GARFIELD:
Fair enough. Kucinich's 2004 calls for withdrawal from Iraq are now pretty much mainstream thinking, certainly in the Democratic Party. And the Democrats were swept into power largely based on popular dissatisfaction with the war.

So Kucinich sits down with Mark Lebovitch of The New York Times and casually announces that he's running in 2008. Then what happened?

JEFF COHEN:
I don't know. It was a lot of ridicule. Again, it's all expected. Kucinich can expect, unfortunately, the same sneering coverage. He's a serious candidate, and, as you point out, he's actually been vindicated by events. What he said in 2004 looks awfully good in 2007. But the problem is, there's no term limits for politics pundits, and it's the same press corps that'll have the sneering coverage of Dennis Kucinich this time.

BOB GARFIELD:
All right, Jeff. Thank you so much.

JEFF COHEN:
Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.

BOB GARFIELD:
Jeff Cohen is the founder of FAIR, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

Dennis Kucinich is a Democratic Presidential hopeful. He joins us now. Congressman, welcome to On the Media.

DENNIS KUCINICH:
Thank you very much.

BOB GARFIELD:
Last time around, the major media scarcely covered your candidacy, and when they did, it was as an oddity. Did you think that you were a victim of the Media – with a capital M – or what was going through your head?

DENNIS KUCINICH:
Well, I don't believe in victimization, but I do believe that, you know, there's a tendency on the part of the media in this country to try to pick whoever's going to be the nominee early on, and create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I think that it's important for people who run for public office to be ready to take a stand, whether the media wants to favor them or not.

BOB GARFIELD:
Are you suggesting that, you know, a bunch of guys at, you know, major corporate-owned media were actively trying to squelch your campaign? You know, these guy's too dangerous. We can't let him succeed. Is that what you're charging?

DENNIS KUCINICH:
I'm not saying that, you know, there's any kind of official policy. There doesn't have to be. But I'm also saying, as someone who has a bachelor's and master's degree in communications, that there is such a thing as a gatekeeper theory, and everyone understands that. The Internet's changed a lot of that, but corporate-owned media, in a society where there are fewer and fewer media companies, has an ability to be able to control the debate.

The Federal Communications Act of 1934 said that the electronic broadcast licensee should function in the public interest, convenience and necessity. Now, we've gone a great distance from that goal, and I do believe that this country is capable of a much more vigorous political debate than we're seeing.

BOB GARFIELD:
Other candidates – Hillary Clinton comes to mind – spend years and millions of dollars gauging the electorate and measuring every word and every action. That's evidently not your strategy.

DENNIS KUCINICH:
Well, you know, my poster is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once wrote, in his essay on self-reliance, "Above all, to thine own self be true. Every heart vibrates to that iron string, to believe that what's true for you could be true for everyone."

I think we have to have a sense of our own humanity and how it merges with all of humanity. And my life experience has given me a great gift, and that is that I really understand what people go through, and it's given me the ability to connect with the hearts of people and to be able to not just represent their hearts but their voice.

So I don't need the focus groups, the poll groups, the coterie of advisors. While it's always good to get advice, I think there is something about listening in the quiet moments to the universal that is available to all of us.

BOB GARFIELD:
Well, God bless Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he never backed a winner. In your first interview with The New York Times, the interview in which you actually announced your candidacy, the paper comes out and apparently nothing had changed. You know, notwithstanding the vast movement in the American popular opinion about the war, you were still treated as, you know, a joke.

DENNIS KUCINICH:
Let me just say something. I think The New York Times is going through a learning curve itself. Everything that I said about the war was discounted by them because they were The New York Times and they knew better than anyone else. It's a real burden, by the way, to be, in effect, the final arbiter on public opinion in America. It must be very hard for them, because they've set themselves up as being the sine qua non and the arbiter of all that's right and holy. I mean and you have to get a nihil obstat or an imprimatur from The New York Times to be able to run. It's okay. I'm okay with that.

BOB GARFIELD:
Do you reject the idea that if you actually want to win a race that there are certain things that you have to do to create a sort of mass appeal?

DENNIS KUCINICH:
Yes. I think truth has its own mass appeal. And I've come back to run again, to show people that you can have someone who has the right judgment, who has clarity and foresight and a willingness to stand up and speak out when others will not, because that's not the popular thing to do.

It was popular to be for the war in 2002. It's popular now to be against the war. The question is, do you have the courage to be able to hang in there and continue to let people know what's going on, because sooner or later, if you write, it's going to be borne out. And that's exactly what's happened.

BOB GARFIELD:
Congressman, thank you very much.

DENNIS KUCINICH:
Nice talking to you. Kucinich dot US.

BOB GARFIELD:
Congressman Dennis Kucinich is running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. He reminds us that his website is Kucinich.us.