Back in the summer of 1976, when I was covering Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign for Time magazine, I spent one warm summer evening sitting poolside at the press motel in Americus, Ga., with Teddy White, author of the famous Making of the President books.
Between sips of Jack Daniels, White, who had interviewed Carter that afternoon only to discover afterward that his tape recorder had malfunctioned, was explaining why -- in addition to quirky tape recorders -- he had pretty much decided to give up writing books about how presidents are made. For one thing, he said, it was becoming harder and harder to predict with any certainty who would win -- and therefore which candidates should get his attention. And for another thing: "You guys in the regular press corps are now routinely doing during the campaign what I used to do after it was all over."
He was right. For better or worse, two generations of political reporters in effect learned their craft at the knee of the late, talented White. His specialty was providing mountains of inside detail that went beyond describing a campaign's public activities -- Teddy assumed those were already well-covered -- to emphasize behind-the-scenes tactical and strategic maneuvers by candidate and staff.
Sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the "regular press corps" had begun beating Teddy at his own game. The focus of campaign coverage shifted from what candidates said and did on the stump to what was going on in the so-called smoke-filled rooms. The problem with such coverage, however, was that it was not very helpful to the voters who had to choose one candidate over another.
White himself was disturbed by what he had wrought. As early as 1972, he told an interviewer how much he regretted having "invented" this new form of political journalism. If he had regrets then, however, he would have been horror-stricken to see what campaign coverage has become in the 1990s.
Reporters increasingly focus on the minutia of staff politics, on the "horse race" among the candidates, on so-called "character issues" (like who's sleeping with whom), on campaign "gaffes." With television coverage, to the extent candidates are heard at all outside of formal "debates" and their own ads, they are heard in 10-second "sound bites." And throughout the media, greater emphasis is given to reporters' interpretations than on what the candidates actually do and say. Even when journalists focus on "the issues," they tend to choose issues that they and the politicians deem important; it rarely seems to occur to them that other things may be on voters' minds.
The Citizens Election Project, launched last spring by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism in conjunction with the University of Maryland's School of Journalism, is intended to demonstrate ways in which modern political journalism might be changed.
Involving five media partnerships and focusing on four crucial states in the 1996 presidential election -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida and California -- the CEP is trying to bring the priorities and attitudes of the voters back into what has become the closed shop of political campaign coverage. Beyond helping to support the basic partnerships, the CEP also makes available expert technical consultants, focus-group and polling services by the Washington-based Harwood Group and Andrew Kohut's public-opinion research firm, plus an on-line communications capability provided by Soundprint Media Center. Each partnership has developed its own plan, but all share a commitment to changing the status quo.
Here is a rundown on the partnerships and what they are up to:
Iowa. Our partnership in Iowa consists of
the Wisconsin State Journal, four newspapers of the Lee chain, the
Waterloo Courier, the Associated Press of Iowa, NBC affiliate
KWQC in Davenport, and the state's National Public Radio stations
and Wisconsin Public Television. The partners' goal is to encourage
serious discussion of the issues prior to the usually influential Iowa
caucuses in February. Using Harwood focus-group data as a guide, they are
planning a town-hall meeting to be held February 9 in Des Moines. Leading
up to that event, a series of five issue seminars will be held during the
week of January 23 throughout Iowa. During the seminars voters will have
an opportunity to discuss issues and the questions they would like
answered by the presidential candidates. Each of the print partners is
providing its own coverage of these events, and major portions will be
carried live by Iowa NPR and Wisconsin Public TV.
A second Iowa undertaking, bringing together young people and presidential candidates through video conferencing, is sponsored by a partnership of The Des Moines Register, Iowa Public Television, the Iowa Communications Network and the Iowa Department of Education. High school students from around the state participate in hour-long electronic town meetings with individual candidates. This project takes advantage of an extensive state-owned telecommunications network that links the majority of the state's public high schools, making it possible for each candidate to be seen and interviewed by students in widely separated locations. Public Television will produce a program about the student-candidate electronic meetings that will air just prior to the caucuses. Candidate Richard Lugar was the first candidate to speak with the students.
New Hampshire. As a prelude to the New Hampshire primary, a partnership involving New Hampshire Public Radio, the Telegraph of Nashua, New Hampshire AP and New Hampshire Public TV has organized a series of nine public forums, at which small groups of voters discuss issues and put questions to presidential candidates. The forums are thoroughly covered by the partners. Again, the selection of issues and the development of voter-profiles are guided in part by detailed polling and focus-group data. New Hampshire Public Television, in cooperation with Vermont Educational Television and Maine Public Television, will produce nine "New England Public Forums" to be broadcast in prime time on Mondays and Wednesdays between January 10 and February 14. Each forum will feature a candidate fielding questions from call-in viewers and three journalists, one of whom will represent a "Voters' Voice" partner.
A Boston-based partnership involving the Boston Globe and NPR station WBUR-FM and television station WABU-TV is providing intensive and prolonged reporting on how the campaign affects a single town -- Derry, N.H., near the Massachusetts border -- as its voters follow the issues and the candidates and finally cast their ballots. The project began in October with a poll on attitudes among Derry residents. The poll served as the basis for a series of feature articles and broadcasts about Derry. A focus group and three issues panels on subjects such as family issues and the economy were held in November. The panels' deliberations will form the basis for future broadcast and print stories. A televised town meeting is under consideration for just prior to the February 20 New Hampshire primary.
Florida. In October, a partnership involving the
Miami Herald, the St. Petersburg Times, the
Tallahassee Democrat, the Florida Times-Union, the
Bradenton Herald, the Florida News Network (a statewide group of
eleven ABC and CBS affiliates) and local NPR stations sponsored a major,
statewide poll on Floridians attitudes on a variety of subjects. The
partners initially planned to concentrate on the immigration issue, but
the results of the Harwood focus groups revealed that the issue did not
rank highly among the concerns of most Florida voters. The broader poll
was ordered and was followed by a series of print and broadcast stories on
crime, health care and family values. All the major presidential
candidates were interviewed during the Florida straw vote in November, and
a series of stories will run, contrasting the candidate's views with those
expressed by Floridians in the poll.
California. A Bay-area partnership among the
San Francisco Chronicle, KQED-FM and KRON-TV has been focusing
on the San Francisco mayoral campaign, with a run-off election scheduled
for December. The partnership has already sponsored several "Voice of the
Voter" polls and a town meeting. The partners, together with the
Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, have sponsored two debates among the
mayoral candidates - - one on October 27 at Golden Gate University prior
to the first election. Another, between the two run-off candidates, is
scheduled for December 6. The October event, broadcast on television and
radio, featured reporters representing the three CEP partners and
videotaped citizens' questions. The partnership is also cooperating on an
ambitious "neighborhood series." Each of the members has selected three
Bay Area communities, including a number of key minority neighborhoods, on
which to focus during the mayoral campaign. Reporters are assigned to the
communities on a continuing basis to determine voter attitudes and
priorities resulting in a series of articles in the Chronicle and
broadcasts over KQED and KRON-TV. Projects for the upcoming presidential
election are still under consideration.
Different as these five CEP projects are, they have at least one thing in common: All seek to break the "this-is-the-way-we've-always-done it" mold of political reporting and to reassert the primacy of the voter, as opposed to the journalist, in the political process.
I think Teddy White would have approved.