< The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

Transcript

Friday, January 11, 2008

(THEME MUSIC)
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:
And I'm Bob Garfield. Okay, last week we started the show with politics despite a pretty thin media angle, because, come on, it was the Iowa caucuses. But this week we're doing it again, only this time I swear [LAUGHS] with a much, much better media story. And by better, I mean a pitiful, pathetic New Hampshire primary pundit implosion, a historic Dewey defeats Truman pie in the face, the creamy remnants of which TV stars, including CNN’s Lou Dobbs, CBS’s Katie Couric and NBC’s Brian Williams are still scraping off their kissers.
[CLIP]
LOU DOBBS:
The savants, the pundits, all of the political experts need to do a little – a little -
MALE CORRESPONDANT:
Soul-searching.
LOU DOBBS:
- seeking of forgiveness, because everyone was so wrong in this, and breathtakingly so.
KATIE COURIC:
And we'll be hearing more from those ubiquitous pundits and polls in the weeks ahead. But Iowa, and now New Hampshire, should remind us all in the end the only voice that really matters belongs to the voters.
BRIAN WILLIAMS:
Give us a few weeks, we'll promptly forget the lessons of this debacle in polling predictions and primary politics. We will all live to screw up another day, though our performance in New Hampshire will be hard to beat.
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
That was NBC’s Brian Williams stating the painfully obvious. They will live to screw up another day because campaign journalism, and especially political punditry, is all about prognostication, a savory soup of polling data, history and supposed expertise, which is all well and good, except that the electorate doesn't necessarily eat the soup.

The experts are still sorting out the polls. Was the sampling unrepresentative? Did the sample lie? Did the human factor, actual living, breathing voters deciding on living, breathing candidates, rudely ignore the inevitability of a Clinton defeat? Even the unsinkable Chris Matthews, MSNBC’s towering monument to certainty, seemed a little shaken up – almost a new man. Here he was on Tuesday.
[CLIP]
CHRIS MATTHEWS:
And I give her a lot of personal credit. I will never underestimate Hillary Clinton again.
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
Well, maybe not entirely new man. Here he was the next day.
[CLIP]
CHRIS MATTHEWS:
And I'll be brutal. The reason she’s a U.S. senator, the reason she’s a candidate for president, the reason she may be a frontrunner is her husband messed around.
FEMALE CORRESPONDANT:
Yeah, but –
CHRIS MATTHEWS:
That’s how she got to be senator from New York. We keep forgetting it. She didn't win there on her merit. She won because everybody felt, my God, this woman -
FEMALE CORRESPONDANT:
Ummm –
CHRIS MATTHEWS:
- stood up under humiliation.
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
And that is a course on how the media screws up. In fact, it’s not just one course. It’s a whole meal – from soup to – nuts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Christopher Hayes, Washington editor for The Nation, is fresh off the campaign trail. He joins us now, sleep-deprived, and, we hope, with his guard down. Chris, welcome back to the show.
CHRISTOPHER HAYES:
Thanks for having me back, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So there was an interesting piece of analysis on Campaign Desk, which offers continual coverage of the coverage on the CJR website, and it suggests that the vote for Clinton in New Hampshire was in some way a vote against MSNBC’s Chris Matthews as the sort of breathing, saliva-spewing symbol of a general—
[LAUGHTER]
– media dump on Hillary. When we talk about group-think, is he the leader of the pack?
CHRISTOPHER HAYES:
I think he’s one of them. I mean, he’s certainly the most voluble of the bunch. And I think also the amazing thing about Chris Matthews is that when he gets something in his sights he just won't let it go.
[BROOKE LAUGHS]
So, I mean, sometimes instead of interviewing, whatever idea he just came up with, he just sort of throws it out and says, isn't that true? Right? But isn't that true? And then if they try to deviate from the line, he cuts them off [LAUGHS] and steers them back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You know, it does seem that he’s gotten a lot of the press in the wake of New Hampshire. Is it simply that because his narratives seem to be so immovable once set that he’s just, as you say, an example of the extreme campaign reporter?
CHRISTOPHER HAYES:
Yeah, I think that’s exactly it. I mean, I think that he’s ascended to the level of kind of icon [BROOKE LAUGHS] of the frustration that people have with the media, particularly the media’s relationship with the Clintons. I actually think that going into Tuesday, before the actual primary had happened, my thought was that the biggest story that I was seeing was this crazy degree of schadenfreude on the part of the national press corps directed towards the Clintons.

I mean, it was almost like they were gathered on the shores – the Titanic was sinking – and kind of sadistically waving at the people scrambling for life rafts.
[LAUGHTER]
And it was so palpable. It kind of brought people back to the late 1990s and Ken Starr and Monica Lewinsky, and that’s a real raw emotional place for your average Democratic primary voter.

And I've talked to a lot of people who are not Hillary Clinton supporters at all, and they felt this desire to kind of defend the Clintons and to kind of tell the media to go buzz off.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You've called the experience of covering the New Hampshire primary “terrifying,” [LAUGHS] and you wrote that you’re convinced that a lot of the reporting that emanates from New Hampshire and Iowa is the result of insecurity that never goes away.
CHRISTOPHER HAYES:
Yeah. It’s a bewildering enterprise, right? Very few of the reporters there are from New Hampshire. So you got the GPS in your rental car and you got a million events to go to. And there’s always the fear that you’re going to get lost, you’re going to go to the wrong thing or cover the wrong candidate, or something is going to happen and you’re not going to be there.

The other problem – and this gets at the really deep [LAUGHS] epistemic conundrum of political reporting, which is that ultimately what’s going on in an election is happening inside a black box called the voter’s head. And as a political reporter, you have this set of remarkably crude tools to try to like peer in there.

So what do you do? You project your own feelings. So I go to an Obama event and I'm, like — you know, I get goosebumps and I'm like, wow, he’s inspiring everyone. Well, I don't know if he’s inspiring [LAUGHS] everyone.

In fact, afterwards at a few events, after I thought, you know, I was ready to go sign up and volunteer for the Obama campaign, I talked to a few people who were, like, yeah, well, I'm still thinking of Richardson. Richardson? What are you talking about? Didn't you just see that speech?
[LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You know, it’s really interesting, because this also, I think, is a contributing factor to this pack analysis, this group-think that takes over a campaign or campaign reporters. Ezra Klein, who is a campaign reporter for The American Prospect, wrote in his blog about watching Hillary’s debate performance in New Hampshire. He thought she did a great job, but he was soon convinced that she’d actually had a damaging meltdown because the spin was so overwhelming.
CHRISTOPHER HAYES:
You know, there’s this distance between you as a reporter and the people at these events, or the campaigns. It’s just a distance, and you have to overcome it. You have to psych yourself up to go into the crowd and talk to these people who don't necessarily want to talk to a reporter.

The easiest people to talk to are other reporters, so you’re sort of drawn to them because it requires the least amount of psychological energy. So just the raw minutes you spend talking to reporters versus non-reporters, it starts to get completely out of whack at one of these events.

The other thing is that there is safety in numbers. I mean, this is a really obvious point, but I even had [LAUGHS] someone, a reporter that I know and really respect said to me afterwards, the morning after, he said, well, I got it wrong, but at least we all got it wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] In the wake of Hillary’s misty moment and the kind of media interpretation that followed, a lot of media critics invoked the Dean Scream. But it’s much easier now for the public to actually check the original tape. I mean, people who saw the Dean Scream play endlessly on 24-hour cable news could have been forgiven for thinking he was demented.

But if the moment was seen at length, in the context of the event, supporters shouting, him shouting over them – not to mention that it was the capper of a big go-get-'em speech – he wouldn't have seemed so weird.
CHRISTOPHER HAYES:
Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. I think I remember myself seeing the Dean Scream and thinking to myself, yeah, he does come off a little unhinged there, and possibly that was because I was, you know, prepared to think that by what I had heard.

But then I remembered watching this video online that was taken by a supporter in the back of the room with a camcorder and there was absolutely nothing strange about the whole thing.

And so I think the ability to have access, you know, to a kind of citizen’s media of video and to be able to actually go back and see it for yourself is going to be, in the long run, one of many correctives towards this Dean Scream phenomena that we see.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But do you think it will make the pundit class more careful?
CHRISTOPHER HAYES:
I would like to say yes, but I think no. And here’s the reason why. I really think that the vast majority of members of the political press work very hard and are not these kind of venal, you know, Heathers, as they're called sometimes in the blogosphere, [BROOKE LAUGHS] these catty high school cliques. But I think fundamentally the problems aren't personality. They're structural. People are set up to fail.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Well, let's talk about those structural problems. I know you've written about possible solutions, and you ask the question, rhetorically, is good campaign coverage possible?
CHRISTOPHER HAYES:
Yeah.
[LAUGHTER]
I'm agnostic on the answer, and I say this having just filed [LAUGHS] a piece from the campaign trail. There’re a lot of problems. One is I just think that there’s too much quantity right now in political coverage - I mean, the amount that people have to file, the amount of news time that has to be filled, because what happens is when you have to file all the time, you have no time to think.

I was on the Edwards bus for 30 hours straight at one point and got back to my room, and I was like, you know what I need to do? I need to spend like four hours in front of Google looking at things, and not just the constant perceptual stimulus of the campaign, because I have zero perspective on what I just heard and what just happened.
And I need to go and like look at the census data for these towns we were in and actually see what happened with that mill that, you know, we just went through. And -
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You know what you sound like? You sound like people analyzing the reporting from Iraq during the war. You’re seeing this campaign through the proverbial soda straw. So do you suggest then that people should rotate on and off campaigns; not be attached to a candidate but perhaps attached to an issue, like immigration or tax policy?
CHRISTOPHER HAYES:
Absolutely, I think that is vitally important. There are people from major networks and newspapers who are embedded with campaigns. And there’s a benefit. And the benefit is access. You form a relationship and maybe you can get them to say off the record this or that.

But the costs vastly outweigh those benefits, and the costs are that traveling together is deeply intimate because you’re like brushing your teeth next to someone. You’re like constantly kind of cramped in these small places with someone. And unless you are a sociopath, you are going to start to have, you know, empathy and a whole host of complicated human feelings towards the people you’re covering.

Either you’re going to get this impacted dysfunctional mutual distrust and contempt that you see on the Clinton campaign or you’re going to get this kind of Stockholm syndrome that, you know, arguably -
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You see on the McCain campaign.
CHRISTOPHER HAYES:
Right, exactly, on the McCain campaign. It’s going to be one or the other, because I can tell you from first person that that does get into your head. I mean, you know, you don't want to make your friend mad at you.

The other drawback, the other cost, is the fact that political reporters are not substantive experts, and so whenever they are called to cover something substantive – climate change policy, tax policy, immigration policy, whatever it is – they are going to be vastly, vastly outgunned.

Because when you compare the expertise of the person, say, in the Clinton campaign who prepared the Clinton campaign’s immigration policy with the expertise of the reporter assigned to cover the Clinton campaign, I mean, it’s not even close.

And how do you even know what are the right questions to ask? And, when you’re on the trail, you don't have a day to spend on the computer and on the phone calling up a lot of immigration experts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
What’s the worst thing about campaign coverage right now, especially in the wake of New Hampshire?
CHRISTOPHER HAYES:
Well, it’s a combination of the superficiality born of time constraints and a lack of expertise by the people doing the coverage combined with a herd mentality that is the inevitable result of the terror of being on the campaign trail. Those two things combine to produce coverage that is focused on the most sort of easily parsable aspects of a campaign – how big the crowds are, who cried, who said what, who looked tired, who’s got wrinkles, etcetera.

That’s the stuff that you can see and you can write right away and you can talk to your buddy reporter next to you. And so, that’s what we end up with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Chris, thank you so much.
CHRISTOPHER HAYES:
Brooke, thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Chris Hayes is the Washington editor of The Nation.