Media and Politics
First of all, I'd like to thank all of you at Inver Hills Community College for the invitation. Let me try and present an analysis for you, which will in part be personal example but it will mainly be institutional. It will mainly be about media and issues and public policy and politics. It won't be so much personal because I don't think I am really an important part of it. I will use personal examples to make larger points about how media can broadly define our views. And, I want to have plenty of time for discussion and comments.
I'll start out this way. Since I'm here at the community college and I would like for you all to locate yourselves personally in relation to what I am saying. I would like for this not to be an abstract discussion. And I am interested in this being an occasion to zero in on something that is important to you all and meaningful to your lives.
My view is that politics have become about as concrete and real to people's lives than I have ever seen it in my adult life. Please remember that while there are many more years and more learning for me, I am now in my mid-40's, and I started out with civil rights movements in the South, raised 3 children, ages range from 27 to 19, and I have never seen politics be more concrete. The bread and butter economic issues have just walked into people’s homes and smacked many people in the face and there is a lot of economic pain in our country and in our state. And it has cut across a very broad section of the population. When I travel, which is all the time around Minnesota, I hear "senator, I have lost my job, I'm going to be foreclosed on, I am going to be in a shelter. Can you help me?" "Senator, I can't afford a doctor's bill, a medical bill is going to put us over, I haven't got any insurance." "Senator, we are losing our community hospitals." "Senator, I can't make it as a small business person any longer." "Senator, our farm has been in our family for generations and we're going to lose it." "Senator, I'm a single parent and I'm going back to school and I can't afford child care." "Senator, I went to vo-tech school, but I graduated and there are no jobs." "Senator, we can't afford to send our kids on to school." "Senator, I teach at a community college and many of my students are almost too exhausted to work because they are working several minimum wage jobs." "Senator, I know you have a forum here today and I know you want to talk about higher education and how we can make sure it is affordable to students, but I want to tell you that many of the students you would like to have come to your forum can't come to your forum because they're out working at a minimum wage job." "Senator, I sold plasma at the beginning of the semester to buy text books."
The issues have become very real. And out of love for our country and a really strong belief about the directions we have to head in, I want to make that point because I think this is a place where I'd really like to see media focused on the issues that are important to people's lives. Because people have become really disengaged with politics, people have become really turned off. And the problem with that is if more and more people go in that direction and say ‘I want nothing to do with that,' - and by the way this a non partisan point here I'm making - then as a matter of fact, by default, politics will just go to some people and not others. Politics is what you make it. It's reputable when reputable people are involved and it's not reputable when that's not the case. So it bothers me as someone who really believes in a democracy, whose father was a Jewish immigrant from the Soviet Union who didn't have a democracy, to see so many people just essentially bow out of it. That's my background point.
The media. Let me make a couple of points at the beginning. First of all, let me just simply make what is not such an obvious point, but should be an obvious point. All of us that are here today at this gathering have kind of a limited capacity to sample the world. We can't see everything and see everybody all around the world. We can't do it. And therefore, the media becomes very important to us because the media tends to define reality. I mean, much of what we think we know about the world that we live in is mediated by what we see on TV or listen to on radio or what we read in the paper because we cannot directly experience it. So therefore, the media has awesome responsibility and also awesome power. That's the first point.
Second point, the media broadly defined is the only institution, the only institution privately enterprise in the United States of America, with first amendment protection. That's a real important point. One more time, the media is the only private enterprise in the United States with first amendment protection. Freedom of speech, freedom of press and there is a reason for that. We knew from the very beginning that the media was key to an informed public and an informed public was to a functioning, successful democracy. So, again, an awesome responsibility. Do I think the media has lived up to that responsibility? No. Do I think that there is a lot of room for improvement? Yes, of course. Do I think that everybody in the media does a terrible job? Of course not. There are some people who do a very good job and some people that don't do as good a job, but I'm trying to represent a more institutional analysis.
Barry Commoner. Anybody know that name? How many of you've heard that name Barry Commoner? Very few, which is sort of going to prove my point. Barry Commoner is a well-known professor at the University of Washington, St. Louis. He has done a lot of work on energy policy. Very strong environmentalist, very well known, ran for president in 1980, as the citizen's party candidate, third party. From the word go, he was essentially written off by the by the media, broadly defined. Marginalized.
And he wrote an article called ‘Talking to the Mule,' which had an interesting point. Commoner said, which I like because I have a teaching background, "When I was professor, I was writing articles and writing books and I would get interviews on the Today show, I would get interviewed in major newspapers, The Washington Post, the New York Times, you name it. So I thought I would run for president in 1980. I knew I wouldn't win, but I thought I would have an opportunity to introduce some new political perspectives into the dialogue of the country. But it was like talking to a mule. I would go to Detroit, hard hit, automobile industry closing down, terrible poverty in the city and I would present an Economic Conversion Plan. Economic conversion is important for us to think about right now in our country, and I would talk about how auto workers...could be involved in making a new...rail system for our country. And I would talk about what could be done in the city. I would have a whole economic conversion plan that would be good for Detroit, that would be good for the country, the shifts we need to make in our economy and then I would talk about the issues. No one would show up, it's like talking to the mule." So what Commoner found out what was between him and the people was the media. Very frustrating. T
he 1988 presidential race was vicious. Really it was vicious. It was attack ads and it was simple jingo advertising. It was an awful race, I say that regardless of who won. And afterwards, I'd say people started to talk about it. It was about polls, horse races, not enough about issues and after the 1988 race, journals started writing pieces, I remember them. David Broder and others in the media said we are going to go through this introspective analysis. We know we can do better, and we are going to change the way we cover politics.
Well I don't think that has really happened. Not yet, although I think it can. It can certainly happen in Minnesota because we have enormous potential in our state and I want to outline some points before I'm done. I want to jump to 1990. I'll give a few personal examples. I decided to run for the United State Senate. You know it was one of those meetings where you're meeting with close friends and you're talking and your all saying to one another that you're frustrated, for gosh sake other people ought to run for office. And before the meeting is over, you've been chosen to do it. You've been to some of those meetings? The only thing more awful is when you haven't gone to the meeting and you find out afterward that you've been chosen.
So we run. Now, I've had some background in Minnesota politics. I mean, from education, writing, from organizing, from issues, from struggles, but what happened from the word go is you run into gatekeepers. Here is my personal analysis, it becomes very frustrating. That is to say, the media collectively decides that there are some exceptions to the rule, that you're not a viable candidate. And for the better part of two years, that's what you're up against. You travel, you shake hands with people, you talk with people, you go into café's, its sweat equity. I used to say to Minnesotans this is a ten shower a day campaign, I'm working so hard I have to take 10 showers a day.
You do all of that, but again, people don't necessarily know you've been into their community or they don't necessarily know what your positions on the issues are unless they hear about it on television or see it or hear about it on radio or read about it in the newspaper. And what I have found, for too long a period of time, and this again is a non-partisan point, is that women and men wanting to run for office and have the opportunity.
If it happens, and all too often it happens, that the media decides collectively that you are not a viable candidate because you don't have the money, you're not raising the money and you yourself were not in the Congress or whatever the case maybe, then they don't cover you. As a result, people don't know who you are and then as a result of that, people who might be willing to give you money and support you think you can't win and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.
Does the point make sense? I think one of the things I would object to the most is this gate keeping the function that all too often the media plays and I really don't think that it should. In other words, even before people even have the right to vote, already picking out who should run in the first place. Because all too often the definition of whether you are a viable candidate is do you have the money? Are you raising the big bucks? But that is not all politics is about. And if at the very beginning, the media essentially says that person can't win, treats that candidacy with bemusement, then you're in a lot of trouble.
In 1990, I would hold press conferences, I would lay out, I really believe in issues, that's what attracts me to politics. I would lay out proposals about what we needed to do in the economy. I would lay out proposals about what we needed to do with this, that and the other and if we got in the back pages of the advertising section, we were lucky. The thing with television that is all too often, maybe you would get a second but then that...was contextualized. People don't know what your saying, why your there. If you've ever had that happen, it breaks your heart. You go somewhere and TV is there and your sort of excited because you think people will cover it, and then that night you wait to see what's the coverage and you see...your picture for a second as so-and-so spoke somewhere and boom, that's it. Well that isn't exactly where you stood on the issue. With television, it becomes very, very difficult in the early stage.
I remember I would go around the state, meeting people and so on and so forth. Eight percent of the people knew me. Five more months, eight percent of the people knew me...spend another five months, polls come out, eight percent of the people know me, I'm still 30 points behind. And every 3 or 4 months, TV comes by and interviews you about the polls, and you think maybe, they have some role to play here? I mean, the only time you come here is to report the same results that hardly anybody knows you and you're way behind. But maybe that has to do with the fact that the press has not covered anything that happened in between on issues.
Here is a positive example. We ran that ad "Looking for Rudy," which was a fun ad to run. Now there is a very important media story to this...How many of you know the ad? Well the ad was, there was a movie called "Looking for Roger" and it was parodied after that. I went looking for Senator Boschwitz, asking "would you debate me?" And as a matter of fact we went to different places and he was supposed to be here and there and there. It was a pretty funny ad. It made people smile about politics, that's no small accomplishment.
But the best part of that ad was the matter of fact that it forced debates. All too often, I want to get back to this point, incumbents, Democrats and Republicans alike don't want to be involved in debates. Why should you be, right, from a strategic point of view? People know you, your way ahead; you have everything to lose and nothing to gain, correct?
But it forced debate. Channel 9, I want to give a lot of credit. Channel 9 took it upon itself to sponsor a debate. It was sponsored by the League of Women voters, but Channel 9 was willing to cover it. I went to Washington D.C. to debate with Senator Boschwitz. 23percent of the adults in Minnesota watched that debate. Now, after that debate, about a week later a poll came out. I wasn't so great in that debate, I think it was probably pretty even. But people didn't know who I was, at least I had a chance to talk about who I was, what I believed in. I was now about 14 points behind, not 35 points behind. Just television.
There's a policy implication, isn't there, which is the media can play a very important role in assisting in major campaigns, if you will, that the candidates take part. Television is public airways to devote x amount of time and to say to the incumbent "If you don't want to come, then it's gonna be a meet the press with only one." And if they say "look, Mr. Incumbent or Ms. Incumbent, if you don't come, your challenger gets the full 2 hours." Don't you think the incumbent will come? That's the real role I'd like to see television and radio play, is to insist on debates and make the candidates. And it is public airways and "x" amount of time should be devoted to that. I think it would be extremely helpful, extremely helpful.
Now let me talk about one other thing in 1990 which was good, but we could do a lot better. The attack ads, they're awful. They're awful, it's unbelievable.
Now, another role for media, our media in Minnesota started to play, and I'm very proud of them, is to analyze those ads. When candidates put those ads on, then newspaper and better yet T.V. that actually run them, I think owe it to the public to analyze those ads. And I think if a candidate runs an awful ad that is going to say "candidate X is gonna take away Medicare" or whatever, then by golly, I think the media has a responsibility to run an analysis of that ad and say "as a matter of fact, candidate X does not plan on removing Medicare." I mean, that's a role that the media could play which would be very positive, and I hope there will be more of that.
Now, this presidential election year. I jump up to this presidential year. Well, people said in 1988, "oh my gosh, it was horse race and polls and not issues and we have to play a different role." I don't think they've learned anything, yet.
Now I'm staying away from lots of personal examples, I want to let you ask questions about that, but want to sort of go to what the conclusions are, as I would draw them out. I think there are 3 sets of conclusions. One is how do you respond to all this, what do you do? Second set of questions has to do with what are the policy prescriptions, what are we talking about that can be changed? And the third set of questions has to do with everybody in here: how do we fit in to this?
First all, for myself, I think the only thing you can do is try not to be cynical. Another thing that has happened, that I think is really unfortunate, is that its kind of gotten into a situation now where all too often, media people are cynical because they see politicians using them and that happens all too often. But in turn, the coverage is all too cynical and politicians are cynical about media and it becomes a situation where, in terms of informing the public, we just don't reach that goal.
So, what we're trying to do, and I feel pretty good about it, is essentially do direct stuff. I try to stay on the issues, I love call-ins on radio. Let me just tell you, I love call-in shows, all call-in shows everywhere, doesn't matter whether people are angry with you or like what your doing. I think it's a great, with a small d, democratic medium because people can call-in. That I think is terrific because it's unrehearsed.
The second thing is you just got to continue to be accessible to media people. There are stories that have been written, and I know it's hard to read them when you really, honestly, truthfully believe it's not truthful. It bothers you, I mean we're all human and have feelings. But the other part of it is, it usually evens out and you just got to kind of steal yourself, stay focused on issues, be very true to what you believe in and just move straight forward. So that's my general view, in terms of how as a politician, I try and relate to media, ok? And by the way, that's not always so easy to do.
The second part of the analysis is institutional. I think there are two things that could be done which would be incredibly helpful. Remember my first point, that the media is the only private enterprise with first amendment protection, key to an informed public. There are a lot of journalists, working journalists, political journalists who want to see that the institutions they work for cover public policy more than they do. The problem is, that commercial logic has become the ruling logic.
And again, you have another kind of self fulfilling prophecy that we have to deal with. The owners and editors say, that people are not that interested in politics, therefore we give it less and less coverage because it doesn't sell. They give it less and less coverage because it doesn't sell, and therefore people become less interested in politics and in which case they give it even less and less coverage.
And I constantly try and fight, because I don't necessarily mind if people disagree with what I'm doing in Washington. What bothers me is I don't want people to think I'm not working at it. I don't want people to view politics in Washington as something far away from their lives and somehow, the coverage of the issues and the particular stands that people in public office are taking on those issues, I think can and should and must be more of that. And I think people within the profession are calling for that reform and I think maybe we have a role to play.
The other thing is, in campaigns, I have to say it one more time: there is nothing complicated about this you all, there is nothing abstract. The media can play a positive role in insisting on debates. Does that make sense? And television in particular can do it. I saw how that worked in the '90 election. I think it should work for Democrats and Republicans alike and I don't think third party candidates should be frozen out of that. They have been frozen out of some of these presidential elections. There maybe has to be some threshold requirement, but I think the media could play a real positive role there. And what I would suggest, is that in the stateside elections, what are deemed to be the kind of critical elections statewide, that by golly, people running for office should be forced to be in debates. My dream is for Senate re-election, for example in 1996, would be to have a couple debates in the metro area and to have a debate in every congressional district, with television sponsoring those debates, other media people being there to answer the questions and make those candidates be involved. And I will not wait for a challenger to challenge me to those debates; I am issuing the challenge today. I think that is the way politics should be and I think that's a real positive role that the media can play and that the Minnesota media already plays.
Finally, I would love to see more done on the attack ads, I hope I can get your support on that. Dennis McGrath wrote a long piece in the Star Tribune right after the election. He traveled from the day after to primary to the election day. He never wrote a word and then afterwards he wrote an inside story. With two weeks to go, we were in Moorhead I think, and I went to his room and I will never forget this, and I said I would like to sit down with you and I'd like you to turn on the tape recorder. And he did and I said look, I have now talked to each one of our children, Sheila and I have talked to my three children, each one of our kids and we have told them the next two weeks is going to be awful. You are going to see stuff on television, attacks, and you can't believe it. Please don't let it get to you, so on and so forth.
Nobody running for office, whether Democrat, Republican or other, should have to sit down with their children and tell them that's the kind of stuff they have to put up with. There has got to be a way that the media itself put that stuff on television, they then analyze it on television, which I think is the only way to put a stop to people putting those kind of attack ads on in the first place. I can't tell you how strongly I feel about that.
My last point is where we all fit in. I think Minnesota could be a real model. I think we could do some of these things that I have just mentioned as recommendations, not to be pretentious, but I think the way it’s gonna happen is people, we could do more forums like this one, maybe more students...could have more forums. But I also think that people and meet with some of the editors and some of the owners of the T.V. stations and radio stations and newspapers. It's really a matter of people asking for the meetings and saying, "we'd like to talk to you about this, we wish there'd be more coverage of public affairs, we think this election we could..." You see what I'm saying? The grassroots part is real important.
You know, you'd find it in Minnesota, I'll only talk about my own state, you wouldn't find editors or owners or managers or anything else turning people down. They wouldn't say no to those meetings. I just think they may not understand that there really are a significant number of people who think we could do much better. So I would urge you all, as we sort of move beyond the forum, to think of roles citizens can play in asking for essentially, if you will, a more positive role media can play.
I think we can have a very good politics in the country and I don't blame people for being angry, I wish it could be much better. But I have always believed through my whole adult life, is that's exactly what we can do is make things much better. I've seen people do it. I've seen people do amazing things. I get my inspiration from people I've met who aren't even well known. There's a lot of women and men in this country who should be famous for what they do in their community every day. So I think if we get a little bit more a that push from grassroots, ok, and people don't feel so intimidated and we got some of those direct meetings, we can push a little bit and I think that would be all the positive.
Those are my thoughts. I tried to race through it because you've got many questions and again, I am really pleased to be here and look forward to the discussion.