The first question came from Stan, and it was as clear as it was disturbing: Can American reporters write as they please, even if it does not please the government?
"We have constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press," was the reply.
Stan - officially Stanislav Kholkin, a 30-year-old television newsman from Ekaterinburg, near the Ural Mountains -- knew just enough English to understand the answer, and had enough experience as a Russian journalist not to be impressed.
"Yes," he said. "We have the same."
The look on his face and the tone of his voice said what his words did not -- that by themselves, words in a constitution mean little.
Stan was one of 10 Russians -- six of them journalists -- who gathered recently in the Vermont Statehouse for an informal discussion with two American reporters. I was one of them. The gathering, arranged by the Montpelier-based Vermont Council on World Affairs, occurred on an interesting day. That morning, The New York Times had printed a story about federal surveillance of international bank transactions despite the objections of the U.S. government. Nobody does that in Russia.
But hold the patriotic one-upmanship. The purpose of this little meeting was to talk to the visitors about how American journalism covers political campaigns. The answer is simple: badly. The explanation is more complicated. Governmental interference is only a contributing factor to our content-free campaign coverage. Consider the following:
--In a speech in Phoenix during the 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter proposed a national health insurance system. Those of us covering the story treated it as part of Carter's strategy to win the race. We also treated his speech as a policy proposal. Because finding expert analysts is difficult when you're on the road, a few of us reporters formed a de facto pool. We called different sources, told each other what we'd found, and wrote stories about both the politics and the policy.
--Fast forward 12 years. In 1988 Michael Dukakis made a major speech on defense policy. Then, to illustrate his commitment to military strength, he strapped on a helmet and took a ride in a tank. He looked like a geek. The geekiness was legitimately part of the story. But it was treated as if it were the whole story. Only the Dallas Morning News told its readers anything about the speech. Political journalism had become theater criticism, not because of government fiat, but because . . . well, because of a lot of things.
--In 2004, liberal Democrat Sumner Redstone, head of Viacom, which owns CBS, endorsed President Bush for re-election. "I vote for what's good for Viacom," he said. Like Disney, General Electric
and the News Corporation -- which own ABC, NBC and Fox, respectively -- Viacom needs friendly government regulators who will allow the networks to own more television stations, and to exert more control over the Internet. Hence Redstone's endorsement.
It would be hard to support the contention that network news coverage has become grossly pro-Republican. It is much easier to contend that it has become grossly inane. Surely part of the inanity is a disinclination to engage in the kind of vigorous journalism that might discomfit the administration. Is this because the correspondents and news executives are deliberately going limp to please the regulators? No, not directly. But people tend to know for whom they work, and what is in their best interests.
Newspaper ownership is also increasingly concentrated, and some of those corporations own TV stations as well, rendering them likewise dependent on the good will of federal regulators. The corporatization of newspapers, combined with Wall Street's insistence on high stock prices, explains why so many newspapers are skimpier than they used to be. The Philadelphia Inquirer's profit is $50 million a year, but that was not enough for the corporation that just sold it. Last year, former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll said he could have prevented layoffs and cutbacks if the paper's corporate chiefs could live with a 15 percent profit margin.
Fifteen percent? That used to be considered magnificent. Not for the Tribune Company. Like other newspapers, the Times has laid off reporters and closed bureaus.
The combination of intrusive government and capitalist greed cannot explain away the failures of political journalism. Whatever their corporate restraints, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and other newspapers regularly defy and displease the government, and perhaps their own CEOs.
Reporters and editors aren't blameless; consider the televised debates of the 2000 presidential campaign. In one of them, Al Gore lied . . . er, let's say Al Gore misstated the facts about which federal official he accompanied to which natural disaster. Thanks to an alert corps of political reporters, he did not get away with it.
Bush also, uh, misstated facts in the debates. His false assertions concerned taxes and Social Security. He claimed, for example, that putting less money into the Social Security Trust Fund would not mean the fund would have less money. He did get away with it. Why? Mostly because taxes and Social Security are public-policy issues, and in today's culture, nothing seems less important than public policy.
This development has come naturally, not because reporters are fools but because they are products of a culture of frivolity. So they have re-defined their jobs, rendering it unnecessary to do anything as nerdy as arithmetic -- to check those Social Security contentions, say. This leaves them free to concentrate on process, drama and candidates' characters.
Free also to collude in making politics post-modernly self-referential. That is, campaigns and campaign coverage are increasingly about, well, the campaign. We're already seeing it this year in Vermont, where the stories are about who gave how much money to whom, whether Candidate A's promise not to spend too much was a ploy or sincere, whether Candidate B said something slightly different on Tuesday than he did on Monday.
Political journalism -- not all of it, but its dominant strain, especially on TV -- has told us voters to choose the candidate with whom we would rather have a beer. This is foolish. Precious few of us are going to have a beer with any of them. We are going to drink with our families and friends while the election winners cast votes and institute policies that might affect us. But to today's political reporters, writing about votes and policies is not only hard work, it produces "dull" stories. Especially if the reporter doesn't write well.
Far better to stick with "the Narrative." That's the term journalists use to describe each election's unstated but unmistakably present story line. The narrative is established every two or four years by the reporters themselves, usually in a saloon. This is not an elitist conspiracy. It is the inevitable creation of a mindset among people with common interests and a common outlook.
The prevailing narrative in 2000 was that John McCain was a "straight shooter," Al Gore was dishonest, and George W. Bush was a dunce. All three of those conclusions turned out to be false. More importantly, not one of them had anything to do with what the candidates thought about the world.
The power of the narrative that year continued well into the general election campaign, and it helped elect Bush. Despite assumptions about a "liberal mainstream media," the narrative was far more powerful than any reporter's political leanings. One reporter proclaimed after the first debate that, while Bush "didn't make a clear, coherent argument for his policies," he had prevailed because "the bar is higher for Gore, who kind of lost for winning." A right-wing apologist from Fox News? No, it was Maria Liasson, the chief political correspondent for supposedly substantive, liberal National Public Radio.
Judging from their questions, the Russians visiting Vermont this month were less interested in narrative and drama than in issues and the integrity of elections. Their challenge at home is difficult, yet clear: to be brave in the face of possible government oppression. The cost of their success could be their jobs, perhaps even their freedom.
For American political reporters, the challenge is gentler but more complex: to resist the content-free shallowness that dominates television news and increasingly encroaches in print media. Reporters won't pay the cost of their failure. We all will.