The Press Adored Her?

Newspaper tradition has it that when slumming journalists assail each other in print the show of scorn jumps exponentially if the other party’s not named.

Examples abound. Here’s the Sun-Times’s Jay Mariotti fretting that the Bears’ mediocrity has traumatized the city. “Life has been rather demented around here,” he wrote. “How demented? Oh, we’ve seen Ditka turn into Dracula long before Halloween. We’ve seen players worry about being booed at Tuesday fan luncheons. We’ve seen an old billy goat embarrass himself at the other newspaper . . . ”

And here’s the Sun-Times’s Dennis Byrne swatting a gnat that buzzed once too often about his brow. Byrne’s subject was the “adoring” reporting of the Carol Moseley Braun race. He denounced some Tribune polling that cut in Braun’s favor and went on to say: “It’s the sort of thing generally ignored by the groveling Tribune and Democratic partisan who is the town’s only, yet inconsequential, media critic.”

This hallowed practice violates journalism’s most basic rule, which is to say who you’re writing about. It’s justified on grounds that when the subject’s another journalist no one cares. Sorry, but we respect the profession too much for that and follow a different policy here. Whenever we think somebody has sounded like a nitwit, we’ll tell you who it was.

As Dennis Byrne was saying, “Carol Moseley Braun’s Senate campaign was as content-starved and barren of issues as Bush’s, but you weren’t told about it because adoring reporters were too busy writing about her “charm’ while sharing the joys of her victory lap.”

Up to a point, this is true. The Tribune’s Mary Schmich wrote a damning column on Braun in early October, and beforehand she pulled clips from papers all over the country. “I couldn’t find a critical word,” she told us. “It disturbed me. It was all, all sycophantic. Everyone was caught up in the cause. I think toward the end things changed. There was an effort to hypercorrect that maybe went too far.”

But who’s to blame for the dewy coverage? Political reporters have to cover a campaign as they find it, not as they wish it to be. Investigative reporters expose illegalities, not neglected issues. It’s largely up to editorial columnists such as Byrne to demand intellectual satisfaction from the candidates.

We ran a computer search on Byrne’s 1992 op-ed output. The first time he mentioned Carol Moseley Braun was on June 30, in a column mocking the “feminist” reaction to a Supreme Court ruling on abortion the day before: “In a typical response, Senate candidate Carol Moseley Braun, the darling of radicals in the National Organization for Women, huffed, “The court decision is open season on women.”‘

Byrne didn’t get around to Braun again until the morning of last week’s election. “Have you voted for a woman today?” Byrne began, launching his argument with his usual feathery irony. “You’re supposed to, you know. It doesn’t matter who she is, what she believes or whether she is honest, competent and smart. What counts is only that she’s not a he. That’s the word from feminist politicians . . . ” Byrne mentioned Braun in passing.

Byrne’s the best example we can find of the kind of superficial journalism he complained about: nothing about Braun seemed to interest him beyond her sex and her feminism. We read his recent column as an honorable attempt at self-criticism.

Even though most journalists we know wanted Braun to win, adoration isn’t the explanation. Once in a while journalists’ sense of the common good tells them that a particular election has become a watershed and that the wrong result would be not just a misfortune but a calamity. In 1983 Chicago would have damned itself by electing Bernard Epton. In 1992 the choice of an ebullient black woman from the south side over a rich, arrogant operative from Kenilworth never stopped seeming the right one, no matter how flawed the black woman showed herself to be. These weren’t fatuous sentiments; they were conclusions. If a lot of people hadn’t drawn them, neither Washington nor Braun could have won.

Like Harold Washington before her, Braun was underestimated and undercovered before her party’s three-way primary. Male journalists especially lacked the wit to appreciate her chances. Victory made her a national phenomenon, and in the long hiatus before the fall campaign she remained one. But to the extent that journalists ever adored Braun, they’d already begun to think twice by the primary election. She nonchalantly oversaw a campaign organization crippled by defections and intrigue. Her dissembling, scapegoating, and intellectual laziness alienated well-wishers. So did rampant tales of dubious personal conduct the media never found a way to report. If you like gossip, you may wish Braun had lost. If she had you’d probably have heard some of those tales by now, dignified by the media under the guise of political autopsy. The overnight postmortems of the Bush campaign demonstrated the media’s ease at dishing dirt once the dirt can be dressed up as analysis.

At any rate, we’ve talked with some of the reporters who covered Braun. Their feelings toward her range from disappointment to disillusionment. By the time the medicaid story involving Braun and her mother broke in late September, Braun had squandered most of the respect journalists once held her in.

The story of Edna Moseley’s unreported $28,700 windfall transformed the campaign coverage, hounding Braun until election day. Using the stacks of newspapers we keep around the office we made a quick survey of the articles on the Senate race that followed WMAQ TV’s September 28 exclusive. We found 58 articles and columns in the Sun-Times and Tribune; 37 of them mentioned the medicaid scandal. As Thomas Hardy pointed out in last Sunday’s Tribune, an exit poll showed that 56 percent of the voters doubted Braun’s honesty.

Yet she won easily. She won a victory that reminded us of the way Richard Nixon swept 49 states in 1972, even after Watergate had begun to tear apart his government. Illinois didn’t want Rich Williamson, and the public’s first order of business was to get rid of him. Ultimately, the state chose between symbols. This doesn’t mean reporters failed to do their jobs, only that the symbolism was overpowering.

At least, says Mary Schmich, Braun “was not glutted on all the presumptions and privileges of power that men who have been in politics a long time tend to be glutted on.” Braun’s medicaid finagling was chump change next to Rich Williamson’s sojourn as a vice president at Beatrice. Hired for his political connections in 1985, he stayed 18 months and skipped out during a $6.2 billion takeover. Thousands of jobs were lost, the company eventually collapsed, and Williamson floated to earth on a golden parachute, $1.1 million richer. The destruction of Beatrice epitomized what was worst about the last 12 years.

Which candidate really got a free ride? Of those same 58 articles on the Senate race, just 5 brought up Williamson’s fast $1.1 million. The difference, we guess, is that Braun’s conduct might have been illegal, while Williamson’s was at worst only immoral. And when Williamson appeared before the Tribune’s editorial board and disdainfully flung pieces of paper across the table at the board members, no reporter was present to describe him acting like a jackass.

The most powerful article anybody wrote on Braun was Mary Schmich’s. She sat in on Braun’s endorsement interview with the paper’s editorial board and then with a sick heart chronicled Braun’s incompetent performance. “In every love affair there arrives the first awful moment of truth,” she wrote. “Braun has skated through on charm, and her supporters–of which I hesitantly remain one–have been complicit in her failure to grow beyond charm.”

For seven weeks Braun took a terrible beating in the media. She won anyway. Every journalist we spoke with voted for her, no matter how disillusioned each had become. So did we, and we have no faith in her at all. Although reporters didn’t say everything they knew about Braun, they didn’t shame themselves on her behalf, and the public didn’t vote her into the Senate out of ignorance.

Campaign Aids

This will go down as the election year in which the communion between the candidates and the public was mediated by Larry King and Phil Donahue. The Sun-Times did some mediating of its own, introducing a couple of new forms of reader-friendly political coverage that deserve to be mentioned.

In the spirit of “Dear Diane” and “All that Zazz,” there was the occasional full-page feature “Ask the Candidates.” Readers called in their queries, and Carol Moseley Braun and Rich Williamson provided answers. The questioners were given the last word, which might be skeptical but often ran to “Sounds good” or “That’s fantastic.”

A second innovation was the use of focus groups, who watched the debates together and then sounded off. This strikes us as a more efficient way of rounding up vox populi chatter than the traditional method of sending reporters into bars, though when two of the panelists in one group turned out to be people we know (warts and all), it was impossible to accept that group as a cross section of anything.

Another helpful aid to the benighted voter were the full-page charts that walked us through the candidates’ positions issue by issue in words of one syllable. Fortunately, one of these charts ran in the Sun-Times the morning of a major presidential debate in a local third-grade classroom. The incumbent, who happened to be our daughter Laura, studied her platform beforehand with her issues adviser in a nearby coffeeshop and then marched into school to deliver George Bush the only overwhelming victory he was going to get.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.