How the media choose a president

Feb 4, 2004 at 12:00 am

Were you startled that after two small states had “voted” — one in a primary, one via a more restrictive caucus system — that the politicians and the media were declaring the Democratic nomination all but sewn up?

Did you resent the fact that the race might be over before Michigan, and the rest of the nation, had a chance to have a say? Well, welcome to modern presidential politics, where perception produces money, money runs the system, and the media play God.

’Twasn’t always so. Flash back to 1968, when Bobby Kennedy, agonizing over the Vietnam War, jumped into the race on March 16 — and still could hope to snare enough delegates to win the nomination. That hasn’t been possible for a long time.

Odds are this year’s race will be done by close of business on March 2. Ten states vote that day, including three of the biggest: California, New York and Ohio. Most of the candidates will run out of money well before that.

Mo Udall, one of the only genuinely funny men to ever make a serious run at the Democratic nomination, put it this way as far back as 1976: “It’s like a football game in which you say to the first team that makes a first down with 10 yards, ‘Hereafter your first downs are five yards. And we’re going to let your first touchdown count 21 points.

“‘Now the rest of you bastards try to play catch-up under the regular rules.’”

This is being written before the results are known for the seven states that decide Tuesday, but after New Hampshire and Iowa, the nomination of John Kerry was being portrayed as something of an inevitability, and most of the usual experts, including, well, me, seemed to consider John Edwards the logical vice-presidential nominee.

No matter what, however, you ought to go take part in Michigan’s caucuses this Saturday, since we are the first major state to weigh in, and because this election is so crucial. (The caucuses aren’t where you normally vote, so check to find out where.)

Over the weekend I spoke to a number of supporters of Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean, and many of them were more than a little miffed at the national media.

Kucinich, as expected, has been totally ignored by the press, except for a few sniggers over his tenure as mayor of Cleveland. His ideas, some of which are interesting enough to merit a national debate, haven’t gotten a nanosecond of attention. And after salivating over Howard Dean for months, the national media have dropped him as though he were a Cass Corridor hooker and they were approaching the county line.

Welcome to the big leagues.

Yet if the ticket is headed by John Kerry, there are real pluses. Even those who firmly would like someone more progressive or more exciting should know this: He has been a usually effective U.S. senator with a good voting record for nearly 20 years.

That’s important; the last two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, made a mess of things their first year largely because they were small-state governors with no federal experience who didn’t understand how Washington works.

More than that, he has a distinguished war record, something that may put the Air National Guard draft dodger to shame, and appears to behave like a grown-up. He just might have a real shot at defeating the smirking chimp.

Nothing is more important than that, given the nature of the beast. Yes, we can and should pressure the candidate to pledge to take the right stands on the right issues.

Yet, first he has to win.

Incidentally, it will be interesting throughout the year to watch how Our Local Media cover the election. Don’t bet that they will overdo it on serious issues.

Last Saturday, Harry Belafonte, the famous calypso singer, came to Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Detroit to keynote a town hall meeting designed to form a group to come up with set of issues people could lobby the politicians about.

Was that worthy of coverage by the paper that is labeled the Sunday Detroit News and Free Press? Evidently not, judging from my copy, which, however, found space for a long story about a supposed revival of the Communist Party in Iraq. What is going on?

Several things. What anyone seeking to understand and influence the local media needs to know is that, by and large, they aren’t very interested in anything happening in the city of Detroit, unless it involves spectacular scandal, money or interesting crime.

The dollars, you see, and the circulation are in the suburbs, which, the marketing guys believe, don’t want to hear any more of Negropolis than necessary.

However, these newspapers are increasingly less relevant. We are living in the age of decline of the dinosaurs. The Detroit papers combined have far less circulation than either did separately in 1988. But there are small papers and neighborhood newsletters, public access cable programs and blogs and chat rooms. (Full disclosure: I am editorial vice-president of a chain that includes some of them, including the Observer & Eccentric papers.)

We are in an age of media diversification that we barely understand. The trick this decade is finding where the people you want to reach are.

We’re missing him: Perhaps the worst thing about this year’s presidential campaign is that Otto Feinstein isn’t here to see it. Feinstein, a longtime Wayne State University professor, died at the end of last year. He had been one of the strongest and most modest forces for good in this state ever since he energized students as Michigan chair of Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign in 1968. He continued to devote himself to trying to get young people involved, through his Youth Urban Agenda/Civic Literacy Project. A refugee from the Nazis, he knew that the ancient Greeks defined “idiot” as one who ignores public affairs. He spent his life fighting idiocy.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]