Triumph of the Trivial
July 30, 2004
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Under the headline "Voters Want Specifics From Kerry," The
Washington Post recently quoted a voter demanding that John
Kerry and John Edwards talk about "what they plan on doing
about health care for middle-income or lower-income people.
I have to face the fact that I will never be able to have
health insurance, the way things are now. And these
millionaires don't seem to address that."
Mr. Kerry proposes spending $650 billion extending health
insurance to lower- and middle-income families. Whether you
approve or not, you can't say he hasn't addressed the
issue. Why hasn't this voter heard about it?
Well, I've been reading 60 days' worth of transcripts from
the places four out of five Americans cite as where they
usually get their news: the major cable and broadcast TV
networks. Never mind the details - I couldn't even find a
clear statement that Mr. Kerry wants to roll back recent
high-income tax cuts and use the money to cover most of the
uninsured. When reports mentioned the Kerry plan at all, it
was usually horse race analysis - how it's playing, not
what's in it.
On the other hand, everyone knows that Teresa Heinz Kerry
told someone to "shove it," though even there, the context
was missing. Except for a brief reference on MSNBC, none of
the transcripts I've read mention that the target of her
ire works for Richard Mellon Scaife, a billionaire who
financed smear campaigns against the Clintons - including
accusations of murder. (CNN did mention Mr. Scaife on its
Web site, but described him only as a donor to
"conservative causes.") And viewers learned nothing about
Mr. Scaife's long vendetta against Mrs. Heinz Kerry
There are two issues here, trivialization and bias, but
Somewhere along the line, TV news stopped reporting on
candidates' policies, and turned instead to trivia that
supposedly reveal their personalities. We hear about Mr.
Kerry's haircuts, not his health care proposals. We hear
about George Bush's brush-cutting, not his environmental
Even on its own terms, such reporting often gets it wrong,
because journalists aren't especially good at judging
character. ("He is, above all, a moralist," wrote George
Will about Jack Ryan, the Illinois Senate candidate who
dropped out after embarrassing sex-club questions.) And the
character issues that dominate today's reporting have
historically had no bearing on leadership qualities. While
planning D-Day, Dwight Eisenhower had a close, though
possibly platonic, relationship with his female driver.
Should that have barred him from the White House?
And since campaign coverage as celebrity profiling has no
rules, it offers ample scope for biased reporting.
Notice the voter's reference to "these millionaires." A
Columbia Journalism Review Web site called
campaigndesk.org, says its analysis "reveals a press prone
to needlessly introduce Senators Kerry and Edwards and
Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, as millionaires or
billionaires, without similar labels for President Bush or
Vice President Cheney."
As the site points out, the Bush campaign has been
"hammering away with talking points casting Kerry as out of
the mainstream because of his wealth, hoping to influence
press coverage." The campaign isn't claiming that Mr.
Kerry's policies favor the rich - they manifestly don't,
while Mr. Bush's manifestly do. Instead, we're supposed to
dislike Mr. Kerry simply because he's wealthy (and not
notice that his opponent is, too). Republicans, of all
people, are practicing the politics of envy, and the media
obediently go along.
In short, the triumph of the trivial is not a trivial
matter. The failure of TV news to inform the public about
the policy proposals of this year's presidential candidates
is, in its own way, as serious a journalistic betrayal as
the failure to raise questions about the rush to invade
P.S.: Another story you may not see on TV: Jeb Bush insists
that electronic voting machines are perfectly reliable, but
The St. Petersburg Times says the Republican Party of
Florida has sent out a flier urging supporters to use
absentee ballots because the machines lack a paper trail
and cannot "verify your vote."
P.P.S.: Three weeks ago, The New Republic reported that the
Bush administration was pressuring Pakistan to announce a
major terrorist capture during the Democratic convention.
Hours before Mr. Kerry's acceptance speech, Pakistan
announced, several days after the fact, that it had
apprehended an important Al Qaeda operative.