Moderator Lance Morrow questioned Bill Kovach, former Curator of The Nieman Foundation; Mary Jo Meisner, Vice Chair, Community Newspaper Co.; Sam Fleming, News Director, WBUR-FM; and Yvonne Abraham, Boston Globe reporter. Some highlights:
Former Curator of The Nieman Foundation
In terms of citizen information about the candidates, this primary process probably was as informative as any I can remember. But it was largely the result of decisions made by the political parties and the candidates rather than decisions made by the journalists. The idea to have a range of debates ... gave viewers and listeners as good a look at the candidates as I can remember.
My concern is ... that this pressure to compete on almost an entertainment format, to try to grab readers, has forced newspaper journalists to always have to construct a narrative, to start the season with a story that's going to be compelling and hold the readers through the campaign.
It's almost like giving a child a loaded gun. The power of narrative, not properly handled, can be destructive ... If you look at the story line that was developed early on the campaign - on the two princes in search of the next generation of their ownership of American politics - it has warped the coverage of George W. Bush and Al Gore.
The line on Al Gore, that he can't tell the truth, has become acceptable common wisdom. But if you go back and look at the stories, it's based on very thin gruel. I mean, even high school kids in New Hampshire recognize the difference between what Al Gore said and what The New York Times and The Washington Post reported.
The Love Canal story was so warped in the reporting because it fit the story line: that here's the man, Pinocchio, who can't tell the truth. That worries me more than almost anything else about the trend in coverage now...
I think there is a very real possibility for... the kind of citizen-oriented, human being-oriented journalism that civic journalism encourages. I think it could be very important to this process and can happen...
I think, for example, a part of any campaign that we have always missed is that campaign that occurs below the radar - of all the information that goes directly into homes, whether it's in direct mailing, whether it's in satellite video, whether it's in VCRs mailed into the homes, whether it's in the conversations that occur in coffee klatches of 20 people with a candidate or a surrogate of the candidate. That means on any given day there are literally hundreds of thousands of human beings out there who are being campaigned.
It wouldn't be that hard for a news organization to identify in 50 communities around the country 50 people, 100 people, whose judgment they trusted and ask them to just keep track of how they're being campaigned and call them on a weekly basis and ask them what they heard, what they saw, what they felt.
You don't have to send paid reporters out to collect this information. You can collect it yourself and sift it and begin to write different kinds of stories that grow out of the grass roots, not out of organized journalism. Be open with your reader or your listener or your viewer about where the information came from, what it is. You can tell the story in a way that reflects the public in the campaign rather than the campaign in the public.
News Director, WBUR-FM
The debates were actually one of the better things, ironically provided by the political parties. It meant our listeners had a chance to listen to these candidates unfiltered, really up to a dozen times. It was a great service, I think, for our listeners to be able to do that.
Overall, I think WBUR listeners between early January and March 10 would have gotten a good sense of the presidential candidates, even if the coverage was weighted and tilted towards your basic "Here they come and here they go" coverage. I do think there were areas that we should have done better.
Business coverage. I think the real story in this country right now is the business world, e-business, the stock market, the job market, and I don't think it nearly gets the attention that it deserves inside the political process.
Young voters. This group isn't listening to the radio, isn't reading newspapers...and are probably on the Internet every day. Who are they going to vote for and why?
People not making it in the economy. We hear every day about how great the economy is and then we read, in the fifth graph of many stories, that for a large section of the workforce wages have actually declined over the last 20 years. What do those people think?
And I think the role of new immigrants in this country is a huge issue that probably hasn't been looked at nearly as thoroughly as it should.
All of these issues relate to civic journalism. We, in public radio, need to do what we do best between now and November, and that is to put voices into our coverage and put those on the air.
Reporter, Boston Globe
I was covering John McCain and it was not a normal campaign. The McCain campaign was kind of a cause. I agree that you do get caught in this bizarre world where you don't know what day it is and you don't know what city you're in. The way you would get out of that cycle would be to talk to as many voters as possible, to glean more of their concerns...
But with McCain, it was as if the people showing up for what seemed like millions of town hall meetings were conspiring with the spinners and the candidate himself to just thwart any discussion of issues ... I remember listening to WBUR's series about New Hampshire voters. I just feel like I didn't run into that many of those kinds of voters because, time and again, with McCain it just came down to character.
I was grateful for the couple of times I got to get off the bus and pursue stories that had struck me and try to find out more about things that struck me as strange. For instance, McCain had this message of inclusion and at every town hall meeting he said, 'I want to make this the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.' And you know, Abraham Lincoln's Republican party had attracted voters who were non-white and at all of McCain's town hall meetings, there were so few black and Hispanic voters, it just struck me as so bizarre that this man who could be preaching this message of inclusion could be just failing to get to anybody but your typical Republican voter.
So I got to go to South Carolina, go to Beaufort, and talk to some of these voters and find out why it was that he wasn't attracting them for all of his rhetoric. So that was great, but you don't get to do it that often.
Mary Jo Meisner
Vice Chair, Community Newspaper Co.
This was the first time I lived in New England for the New Hampshire primary. What I was experiencing, not as somebody who's covering the campaign or even directing the coverage of it ... was this McCain phenomenon. I love the fact that he was out there at those town hall meetings. I had a much better idea of voters and of residents.
I think the message that we should learn from this ... he represented to me the fact that the voters do want to really penetrate our system.
What [should] publishers and editors do? ... We are really going to have to radically change the way that we cover presidential politics. Just as in the last several years we have really grappled with the issues in the industry of our credibility.
People don't listen to us as much anymore. They really don't care. I think the Internet is where they're going. They're going to all sorts of different ways to communicate and to express their viewpoints.
It's going to take one of the key newspaper companies to really throw everything up in the air and come up with some new ways of doing things...
And I think that we're going to have to realize that the way we've been covering campaigns is not working anymore and that we are partially to blame and responsible for the incredible decline in voter turnout and that it's all intertwined. There are things we can do, I'm convinced of it. But it's going to take some key players to get out there and to try some new things instead of just really going along with the Beltway way of coverage.