Philip Bennett

The Presidential Race: What’s the Story?

Oct. 1, 2008

It's a pleasure to be with you tonight. I want to say by way of introduction that I'm here because of Tony Marx. Not that he twisted my arm. I mean it in the broadest sense. I can testify that Tony didn’t start provoking 20-year-olds when he became president of Amherst; he provoked and and inspired 20-year-olds when HE was 20 years old. I've been grateful for that bond of friendship since we were roommates one summer in Cambridge nearly 30 years ago.

I’ve seen enough as a journalist since then to be true believer in Tony’s beautiful description in his remarks at Convocation earlier this year that “lives of consequence” are born of accidental, humbling, incremental journeys. We are seeing two of them now in the contest for the presidency.

Nobody today doubts that we are living in a Moment of Consequence. We're entering the final stage of what is probably the most interesting presidential election of our lifetimes; this is certainly so for anyone born after 1960. Its importance comes from the savage volatility of the times and from the unprecedented nature of the two campaigns and their candidates.

During the last two weeks, we've seen staggering events intrude on the campaigns -- and visa versa -- in a way perhaps unparalleled in our history. During the last two days, the financial meltdown on Wall Street has been followed by a political meltdown in Washington. Wall Street as we knew it has ceased to exist. At least for the moment, so has leadership in Washington.

So far, according to polls and reporting from inside the campaigns, Barack Obama has opened a narrow but perceptible lead over John McCain as the economy has become the pre-eminent issue for voters. These may end up being the decisive days for our financial future – and for the outcome of the election. But there’s far too much uncertainty to make predictions about either.

One way to describe the extraordinary quality of this election is to consider this: the two presidential candidates are running largely on biographies that a short time ago would have all but guaranteed their exclusion from the place where they actually find themselves today.
 
You know the outlines. In John McCain, we have the story of rebellious youth transformed by years of resistance to torture and captivity; a man whose combative independence made him one of the most unpopular politicians in the party he is now leading into the election, alongside a running mate who would be the first woman to become vice president. In Barack Obama, we have a man who grew up in a later generation and at the frontiers of the American experience -- in geography and identity -- who has changed our politics through an insurgent campaign that crushed his party's most formidable political operation.

Among their few similarities, both candidates now promise change, tailored to their personalities and approaches to leadership. Voters say they want change. But how much change do they want? What kind? Who will embody that mandate and what will he be able to do with it after Nov. 4?

By every measurement -- polls, voter registration, fund raising, television ratings, the crowds at campaign stops, complaints to newspaper editors -- there is very high public interest in this race. Let me ask here: how many of you would say you are following the election closely? How many of you would say you will definitely vote? How many of you have participated in some active way in the campaign: either through volunteering, donating or posting comments on Web sites or sharing information with others?

I want to suggest tonight that the story we have all been following -- the story of this election -- has a life of its own that is worth examining. It is actually a story of competing narratives and competing narrators. One of the things we are witnessing is a contest for control of the story -- among the traditional news media, new sources of news and information, the campaigns themselves, special interests, and interested and often anonymous parties. I think that how we understand this story, what parts of it we connect with and what parts we dismiss, will help determine who wins.

By describing the election as a narrative, I'm not trying to trivialize the issues. Our views of what the candidates will do about Iraq or the economy or the general condition of American society are connected deeply to our understanding of who they are. In this regard, the information -- or disinformation -- in the story of the campaign is a key natural resource of our national decision-making. Some of the questions that inform my thinking about this are: Who is telling the story? What are its major themes, and how have they developed? Is the intersection between media and the electoral process transforming politics? Is it good for democracy?

I mentioned the 1960 election a few minutes ago. I want to take you back there for a moment.

In July, 1961, a month before Barack Obama was born, a book was published that transformed campaign reporting -- and probably campaigning. The Making of the President 1960, by Theodore H. White, presented what its reviewer in The New York Times called the "dramatic narrative" of the contest between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. It described how the campaigns engineered messages and images that they hoped would match the character of the times, and connect the candidates to the direction of change that they had not created but hoped to lead.

White argued that every election summons voters to, in his words, “weigh the past against the future." But he described this process -- in prose that might sound overwrought to our ears -- as having the qualities of a Greek tragedy. Voters, he wrote, "must choose in a primitive and barbaric trial. Although the contest is bloodless, the choice that ends the contest is nonetheless as irrational as any of the murderous, or conspiratorial, choices of leadership made elsewhere in great states. Until Plato's republic of philosophers is established, leaders will always be chosen by other men, not out of reason, but out of instinct and trust. … It is to reach instinct and emotion that the great election campaigns are organized. Whatever issues are discussed, are discussed only secondarily, in an attempt to reach emotions."

I feel reasonably sure that Karl Rove read this book as a child.

In addition to its insights into politics, The Making of the President captured a seismic shift in media that influenced the election results and would change the country profoundly. This, of course, was the emergence of television. Campaigns were still covered mostly by reporters working for metropolitan newspapers and national magazines; they were the filter for the candidates' words and positions -- a sometimes colorful and profane posse, but more inside than outside the establishment. But then an estimated 120 million Americans watched Kennedy and Nixon in four debates -- about the same size audience each night as those for the Obama and McCain convention acceptance speeches -- and it was television, a cool medium, that smiled on Kennedy and his cool assuredness. The early 1960s marked the moment when television eclipsed newspapers as the main source of news and information for Americans, a lead it has never given up.

The Making of the President was a dramatic narrative of  campaigns performed as dramatic narratives. In writing the book, White meant to compensate for the shortcomings of what was then called "daily journalism." He wrote: "One of the occupational hazards of reporting is that it takes so long for the reporter to recognize the importance of what he learns while he is learning it." (I'm sure if I were to ask one of our leading reporters on the trail today, she'd agree this is still often the case).

Forty-eight year later, we're witnessing once again a seismic shift in the media -- with its analogous expression in our politics. Today, about half of all Americans say they are following the campaign on the Internet. Social networking groups, e-mail blasts, text messaging, Twitter, video Webcasts all are tools for campaigning and reporting on the campaign. YouTube has become a premier site for political video, with thousands of posts and millions of viewers. When McCain chose as a running mate a little-known governor from a state with a population roughly the size of Boston's, the selection spawned more than 130,000 videos on YouTube almost overnight. Sarah Palin became the most searched politician on Google over the last four years. A digital skirmish erupted over control of her Wikipedia article.

You simply can't claim to be a typically omnivorous consumer of political news in 2008 without a daily diet of Drudge, Politico, Real Clear Politics, the Huffington Post and your own micro-brewed blog sources.

To see what this change looks like outside the virtual world, if not in the real world, picture the site of the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August. Once you passed through the security perimeter outside the Pepsi Center, with its familiar scanners and concrete sentries, you entered a scene fit for a Medieval Fair. Five hangar-sized tents surrounded the arena -- large enough to hold the 15,000 journalists attending the convention. Separated by curtains and the hum of generators and air conditioning, reporters pounded on their laptops or broadcast for television or directly to the Web. A short distance away, talk radio programs aired from booths lined up like a penny arcade.

A short walk away, notably outside the gates of this fortress, was a 9,000 square-foot facility sponsored by Google, Digg, YouTube, the Daily Kos and others and called the Big Tent. There, hundreds of bloggers paid $100 a week for a work space and complimentary smoothies, chair massages and demonstrations of new Google products -- while blogging away. About 120 bloggers were officially accredited by the DNC, about four times as many as in 2004.

All together, Denver was one enormous wireless node connecting the events to the world -- not White's daily journalism, but instantaneous journalism. This hyper-competitive market produces its own rules: the new pushes out the old, trivia can trump substance, and everyone can claim to get it right, if only for a moment. It seemed kind of exciting and kind of scary.

And what were all these journalists reporting? As far as I could tell, no major decisions were made at either conventions by the candidates, delegates or party officials. No major news was uncovered by the thousands of journalists working 16- or 18-hour days. But everyone had a story to tell. At times it seemed that this was really a national storytelling festival, and the prize for the winning description of the future was that it came true.

The sources of information and narrative could be classified into several categories. 

First were the reporters and editors from institutional news media. These are the grandsons and granddaughters of Teddy White. In the past, they've been seen as having  a "gatekeeping" function in which credibility is the cardinal virtue. Their job is to place a transparent but clarifying and critical filter on reported facts that are delivered to a mass audience in a balanced, reliable and engaging way. The technical term for this group in popular culture is, I believe, "the dying breed." I count myself a lifetime member.

In reality, many of these familiar institutions are also new media ventures, running Web sites, hosting bloggers, producing multimedia, aggregating from other news sources. In many cases there is no meaningful division between old and new media. Almost half the Washington Post employees at the convention worked for our Web site. We produced hours of live video for the Web from our corner of the tent.

The second group has been called the "commentariat." Its member can be radio talk show hosts with 15 million listeners or bloggers with audiences that extend barely beyond a small circle. Although some do original reporting, many do not. They slice facts, hearsay and argument and repackage them as analysis or insight (sort of what investment banks used to do with mortgages) -- some of them very skillfully and others recklessly. Many have a self-interest in seeing their predictions come true. Some perform a service in holding other news sources accountable for accuracy or fairness. They tend to develop deep niche audiences which can be quite large. Overall, their influence is growing.

The third group are the campaigns and candidates themselves. Barack Obama is both the author of his story and its narrator-in-chief. His record includes two bestselling memoirs and the 2004 convention speech that introduced him to the country. It is reinforced in his campaign speeches, by his staff and by what are curiously called "surrogates," those supporters who carry a candidate's message. I watched one such supporter at Denver move from print reporter to cable show on the night of Michelle Obama's speech, saying, "Michelle's story is the narrative of American exceptionalism. She needs to tell this story over and over" -- as he was doing.
 
The Obama campaign's breakthrough in controlling its own story, perhaps, has come through its internal discipline and from technology. All campaigns aspire to limit reliance on the news media. The Obama campaign has tried some innovative approaches. It has collected millions of cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses to text its supporters directly. This was the method for revealing the choice of Joe Biden for vice president. It has adapted social networking tools. One of the founders of Facebook is the campaign's director of online organizing. It is impossible to imagine Obama's fundraising success -- almost $500 million -- without the Internet.

The Obama campaign has rationed the candidate's substantial exposure to questioning from the news media. He is extraordinarily skilled at staying on message, of sticking to his story. It became clear in Denver that the decision to stage his acceptance speech to Invesco field was part of the effort to bypass the party apparatus, the media rituals of the hall, and go directly to the public on his own terms.

This is one of the themes we've seen develop over the last months: the contrast between the discipline and deliberateness of Obama and the improvisation and spontaneity of McCain. These two different styles were evident to the millions who watched the debate last Friday.

I think Obama's control of the narrative of his campaign has enabled him to overcome many of the towering obstacles that have stood between him and the presidency. His message of change has largely prevailed -- decisively on some issues, like the economy. At least so far, it has enabled him to neutralize, so far as we can tell, the overt influence of racial prejudice, as well as the relatively modest public record that led Sean Wilentz, among other critics, to argue that he is "the most unformed candidate in the history of presidential politics." His opponents have failed to make this charge stick.

The Repubicans have, of course, picked up on this dynamic, with some bitterness. In her speech to the convention in St. Paul, Sarah Palin took a brief detour from her own story to zero in on the heart of the matter, when she said: "It's easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform."
 
Nobody has been more successful in recent elections than the Republicans in creating campaign narratives that triumph. This is essential if they are to remain in the White House. On almost every major issue save one -- national security -- the Republicans trail the Democrats badly. Yet the race remains close. If John McCain is to win, he must do so on the strength of his biography and his ability to undermine the story of Obama's ascent.

The McCain campaign has repeatedly tried to change the narrative of the election through dramatic surprises. The Palin selection can be read this way. So can McCain’s stunning announcement that he was suspending his campaign last week -- and calling for a postponement of the first presidential debate -- to return to Washington to help negotiate the financial bailout package. Such moves carry huge risks for McCain, of course, in some ways in proportion to Obama’s ability to remain unmoved by them.

The McCain campaign has given a peek inside this thinking. On the second day of the Republican Convention, Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, told a group of Post reporters, "This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

This message was echoed by former Senator and actor Fred Thompson, who told the convention that the election boiled down to the tale of two stories. "Tonight, I'd like to talk to you about the remarkable story of John McCain. It's a story about character. It's pretty clear there are two questions we will never have to ask ourselves: 'Who is this man?' and 'Can we trust this man with the Presidency?'"

In his acceptance speech, McCain spoke with candor and emotion about the suffering and sacrifice that he said redeemed him and set him on a path to become president. Never has there been an acceptance speech at a national convention that invoked such searing personal details to make the case that this was a presidential autobiography.

Of course, the selection of Gov. Palin introduced not only a new, hit story but a brawl over who was telling it. Davis, the McCain campaign manager, told us that Palin had "a much better story than what is currently going on in the media. … We’re letting you guys paint the picture [of Palin] before we even get into the game. That’s certainly not something that’s going to inure to our long-term benefit, so of course we’re going to get into the act.”

On the same day, McCain adviser Steve Schmidt went the further, accusing the news media of being "on a mission to destroy" Palin. Her resistance in the face of this assault -- as a Republican, as an Alaskan, as a woman -- immediately became part of her story.

This set the scene for her acceptance speech: "I've learned quickly, these past few days, that if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone. But here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion."

Palin's selection shook up the narrative of the race, in a way that seemed positive for McCain at first. The reaction by commentators -- and the rush of reporters to Wasilla to vet the vetting -- was presented by her supporters as evidence of the news media's unrepentant bias for Obama. For McCain's opponents, the choice stoked a counter-narrative: it seemed consistent with an image of impulsive gambles and irresponsible self-interest.

As Palin has stumbled through three television interviews, while remaining sequestered from anything resembling an actual scrum with reporters, the risks of McCain’s choice seem clearer. We’ll have a better sense of this after the debate tomorrow night in St. Louis.

Palin and the Republicans have been the most outspoken in contesting the news media for ownership of the story. But they are hardly alone. Democrats and the left have been as sharp and dismissive.

Frank Rich, criticizing the "bogus scenarios" laid out for the Democratic Convention, wrote in The New York Times, "The disconnect between the reality of this campaign and how it is perceived and presented by the mainstream media is now a major part of the year’s story. The press dysfunction is itself a window into the unstable dynamics of Election 2008."

Speaking about the Palin coverage, Mark Penn, an advisor to Hillary Clinton said: "I think the media so far has been the biggest loser in this race. And they continue to have growing credibility problems. And I think that that's a real problem growing out of this election. The media now, all of the media — not just Fox News, that was perceived as highly partisan — but all of the media is now being viewed as partisan in one way or another. And that is an unfortunate development."

The proliferation and fragmentation of sources of campaign coverage, the loss of credibility of some traditional arbiters, the ambient noise of everyone speaking at once has been a headache for some professional campaign strategists. Matthew Dowd, a Bush strategist in 2004, told The New York Times: "At this point, the ability to create and drive a message narrative is all but impossible. There's just too much stuff."

While this may be true, the confusion has created new openings for manipulation. Some campaign supporters attempt to "launder misinformation" by launching it somewhere on the Internet and hoping that it works its way into the mainstream media. Some negative ads are posted directly on YouTube but are never aired on commercial television, in part because the campaigns know that if they are controversial enough they will be written about or aired free on cable shows.

The fragmentation of sources and the absence of a referee trusted by both sides is one of the factors that allowed Palin, for example, to repeat over and over that she said “no thanks” to the bridge to nowhere even after this statement was shown to be untrue. Both campaigns have put out purposefully inaccurate advertisements and have been slow to correct the errors.

It is hard to imagine that the false claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim would have the enduring life that it does without the current media landscape. If you Google Obama and Muslim, you will see results that say that he is and that he isn't. Not among the top Google search results is a very good story in The Washington Post that explored how this falsehood was  seeded across the Internet.

Is there a way to restore order to this situation, and would that be a good outcome?

I think it would -- up to a point. There should remain sources of news and information openly committed to separating fact and opinion. They should earn their status through high standards of reliability, transparency, self-criticism and peer-review from millions of people with access to the Internet or post office.

We're deep inside a transformation of American society. Changes in the news media, as businesses and as vocations in journalism, respond to particular circumstances, but these changes are also occurring in the context of  a wider transition in how people relate to information and communicate with each other.

Today's great opportunity to distill the most constructive and creative aspects of American journalism and apply them to emerging models of participation and networking that are bring a revolution to communications.

News organizations like The Washington Post shouldn’t become nostalgic or paralyzed by the decline of centralized, authoritative voices in journalism. I for one was never comfortable with the title of “gatekeeper.” Our most important job, protected by the Constitution, is not to provide the official story; it is to challenge the official story. The current situation should clarify this mission.

This means not being seduced by the appeal of clever, meaningless chatter or the Internet's reward system that can value speed above depth -- and even accuracy. It can require the courage to be unpopular.

To my mind, the most pressing challenge is to find ways to support, financially and otherwise, the investigative journalism and fact-checking qualities of an independent news media.

If biography is the principle language of the campaigns, we should provide independently researched biographies of the candidates. This form was pioneered in newspaper campaign coverage by David Marannis of the Post in his 1992 profiles of Bill Clinton. The Post and The New York Times have both done exceptional work in describing key influences, decisions and trials in the lives of John McCain and Barack Obama. Reporting from Alaska has told us far more about Sarah Palin than she has herself.

Journalism that reveals the facts necessary to hold powerful institutions and people accountable for their actions is what makes what we do a public trust. This is true whether the subject is secret CIA prisons, abusive care of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Hospital, the architecture of a financial bailout or coverage of presidential politics.

Today, we need to discover models that link this mission with social networks that enable the civic participation of millions of people. The Internet provides the means for enriching the connection between information, participation and democracy. New models are being created for nonprofit financing of investigative journalism in the public interest – an involvement that may include applications for colleges and universities. This is a time for experimentation and exploration.

In ways we scarcely could have anticipated a few months ago, 2008 is starting to look like 1968 – a year of far-reaching change in our society. The change is expressing itself in very different ways than it did four decades ago -- in ways that will take us some time to fully recognize and appreciate.

We do know that on Nov. 4, the stories of the campaigns and the country will intersect dramatically. On that day, of course, the story is told by everyone who votes. Its lessons will last much longer.

Thank you.