John Edwards is running for president. He is handsome, especially with his new “big-boy haircut.” He is charming. He is winning. TheNews & Observer tells me so. Day after day after day. In thousands of column inches and hundreds of photographs. In dozens of graphics and sidebars (and in God knows how many gigabytes on its website dedicated to his campaign). There is Edwards, every morning, along with my cafe au lait: Kennedylike, though presumably without the Demerol and the womanizing and the drinking– and most certainly without the Bay of Pigs and Chappaquiddick. Of course, I’m not sure how we would know if Edwards did something either piglike or policy-linked. I’m beginning to wonder if TheN&O would tell me so.
Tip O’Neill’s adage that “all politics is local” has taken a bizarre turn toward besotted parochialism in the last couple of months. John Edwards is the second thing I see each morning, after the dog pushes her snout in my face. So I’ve grown accustomed to his face. He almost makes the day begin. His smiling pouting lips greet me almost every day on the front page of The News & Observer, warmly pursed in anticipation: as he shakes the hand of a wary Howard Dean; as he shakes his fist in victory in Iowa; as he thoughtfully applauds himself in a town hall meeting in New Hampshire; as he seeks black voters in South Carolina churches. I see his silhouette, thankfully sans lips, on the front page of the features section as he walks across the tarmac at dusk, striding toward history (see more photos inside!!). I read the large, pull-out quotes: “Edwards is good-looking and exciting and apparently a very thoughtful fellow.” Apparently. I read the headlines rife with Manifest Destiny: “Push from Edwards spans North, South” (that was the day Edwards took a plane from New Hampshire to South Carolina). And when Edwards met expectations and won South Carolina on Tuesday, Feb. 3, while Kerry swept five other states, the N&0‘s headline was “Edwards Slows Kerry.” Well, not exactly. One 10-year-old showed that day’s newspaper to her father and asked, “So Daddy, who won?”
N&O Executive Editor Melanie Sill says the emphasis on Edwards is appropriate, and that it’s the responsibility of the N&O to cover him as it is doing.
“It’s not haphazard,” she says. “We recognized that this was a story from the beginning. He’s from Raleigh. He’s the first resident North Carolinian to make a serious bid for the White House. Edwards is a very interesting story. We want to be authoritative.”
Sill says it’s not essential to cover the other candidates equally because N&O readers “are not voting in this field… they won’t play a part in the nomination” because of the timing (and now the cancelation) of the North Carolina primary.
Silly me, but I think it would be handy to know what’s happening in the elections. I actually have connections with people in “blue states.”
The News & Observer has a laudable commitment to local news. But this isn’t local news; this is national news with a local candidate. It’s fine to stress Edwards’ campaign or run an occasional silly feature. It doesn’t all have to be nourishing fare. But local shouldn’t mean misleading. And it has been difficult, if not impossible, over the past few weeks to find the news about what many of us consider the most crucial national election in decades. There are notable exceptions: Rob Christensen’s coverage generally doesn’t disappoint; Barry Saunders doesn’t pander. The problem isn’t necessarily one particular story or a particular reporter. This seems to be happening at a meta-level, where headlines and cutlines and photographs, and the sheer volume of stories, combine to create celebrity coverage gone gaga. It’s all Edwards, all the time. Headlines are misleading. Photos are overplayed. Feature columns coo. I read all about the important endorsements Edwards has received–from the Dartmouth student newspaper to Hootie & the Blowfish. Yes, indeedy. The paper’s Hootie scoop came from a press release that Slate magazine featured as one of the lamest of the 2004 presidential race. The N&O story included a nice mug of Edwards, looking a little like a gourami himself, with the helpful caption: “Edwards has the support of Hootie & the Blowfish.”
So even though I believe, just like talking Barbie, that “math is hard!” I decided to do a little headline, photo and lead paragraph count of the front page of the N&O over the past few weeks. Just to see. Here are the unofficial results, from the day before the Iowa caucuses to the day after the Michigan and Washington caucuses. Keep in mind that until the day of the Iowa caucus, polls were showing that Dean would win that caucus. Also keep in mind that–as our endlessly redundant television pundits intone–it’s all about the delegates. And although we know these numbers will shift as unpledged delegates jump off sinking campaign ships, as of last weekend Kerry was number one with 409 delegates, Dean at number two with 174 delegates, and Edwards at number three with 116 delegates.
Now keep those delegate numbers in mind while you get these numbers: out of 28 stories that ran on the front page of the N&O about the Democratic nomination, Edwards’ campaign was in the headline 11 times and in the lead paragraph 19 times; Kerry was in the headline only twice, and in a lead paragraph only three times. Dean was in a lead one time. The N&0 ran Edwards’ photo 10 times on the front page, and had him share the page with other Democrats three times. Only once did Kerry get his own teaser photo sans Edwards–a small one when he won Michigan and Washington. But no story on the front. You had to go to page 11 to find that out. Of course, that day Edwards got both the headline and the lead paragraph on the front page: “Edwards Vies for Rural Vote.”
Since ratios are hard, but can also be fun, let’s see what this adds up to: When you put together front-page photos, headlines and leads, Edwards shows up nearly four times as often as Kerry does on the N&O front page. But Kerry has nearly 3.5 times as many delegates as Edwards has. See, I told you math was hard! Especially because the lesson you derive from it is perfectly illogical, but quite clear: the more behind you are, the more coverage you get.
When influential U.S. Rep. James Clyburn from South Carolina finally endorsed John Kerry rather than our own special Tar Heel at the end of January, after much coy discussion in the N&O‘s pages about that endorsement’s importance, what we got the next day from the N&O was a sulky brief mention about Kerry’s coup in an inside story in the 10th paragraph. It took a piece by Rob Christensen three days later to bring the news higher up in the story. But the same day, seemingly in a brave attempt to recover from the shock of Edwards’ being spurned, the N&O ran a five-column-wide, intimate close-up of South Carolina state Rep. Bill Clyburn and John Edwards, Clyburn’s hand resting on Edwards’ shoulder in friendship, with the doubly misleading caption: “S.C. Rep. Bill Clyburn, left, the state’s most influential black politician, accompanies John Edwards at a forum on poverty in Columbia, S.C.” Whoops. James is the most influential black politician. Bill’s his cousin. A mistake was made. A correction was run. (I had to go to “corrections school” once at a newspaper I worked at because of two stupid errors within a month; I know how easily it can happen). But within the context of constantly hyping Edwards’ position, it’s not surprising this happened.
The John Edwards coverage is even weirder once you enter the parallel universe of The N&O‘s website. The daily newspaper goes past quickly, like a dream. What is surprisingly less ephemeral is the Website–it has the heft of an elephant, or at least a computer memory the size of one. The N&O website, “Eye on Edwards: A Tar Heel Pursues the Presidency” is a campaign manager’s wet dream. The N&O‘s eye is indeed on Edwards, but it’s a moony, dreamy eye, not a skeptical or even insightful eye. Here, infatuation can objectively be measured in megabytes. It’s more beautifully designed than Edwards’ own site (which looks a bit like a garish bingo game; I know this because the N&O has helpful links to all of Edwards’ websites, official and unofficial). It has family photo albums galore. It has polls–the one that favors Edwards leads the page. It has links in Hollywood celebrity-speak, such as “How He’s Playing,” and “The Buzz.” And Wednesday, it seems, Edwards “shared the skies” with Ozzy Osbourne and Paul McCartney. Is “sharing” tantamount to endorsement? Most egregiously, the web site has national news stories reframed to put Edwards in the foreground. If they can’t be rewritten, their headlines get rewritten:
The original Washington Post headline: “N.H. Race Shapes Up Along Classic Lines.” The recast N&O‘s headline: ” The Washington Post looks at the place of Edwards and others in New Hampshire.”
The hopes of the web increasing democratic discourse, of informing voters both broadly and deeply, of providing more information to create better-equipped citizens able to participate more fully in the marketplace of ideas… well, not at this one site. I looked at the Web sites of other candidates’ hometown newspapers: This site is the Cadillac.
My increasing irritation is not universal. Prof. Phillip Meyer, Knight Chair in Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, says he loves the coverage. “There’s more news in Edwards than in the others. Your responsibility is to engage your readers and make them interested. If (The N&O) took a textbookish approach and gave every candidate the same amount of ink, then it would be boring.” So bore me with a textbook. Meyers pointed out that the N&O‘s coverage is a good thing because it “drives” him to The New York Times and the Web to find out more. It drives me, too.
We have nearly another month of this coverage I fear–this may be all wrapped up by Super Tuesday on March 2, when the delegate heavy states of California, New York and Texas, as well a number of others, cast their votes.
But it probably won’t end there. Here’s my scenario. I can’t call it likely. I can’t call it my nightmare scenario because I am, after all, a Democrat, and I’m going to walk into that booth and enthusiastically pull the lever no matter who the Democratic nominee is. So in this particular dream, John Kerry gets the nomination. He turns graciously to our John and offers him the VP slot. (Think of the possibilities. John-John back in the White House). Kerry is elected President of the United States. And how will we know that? Because here’s what we’ll have the next day in The News & Observer: A beauteous photo of a beaming Edwards, big-boy haircut charmingly ruffled, thrusting his fist in the air. Behind him, a smaller, out-of-focus Kerry, looking more like a pony than a horse. And the headline in Second Coming typeface? “Edwards Sweeps Nation; Wins VP Slot!”
If that happens, I’ll probably count my blessings: At least Clay Aiken stayed out of the race this time around.