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Susan Madrak Headshot

Campaign Reporters: Take the Pledge

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It's time to clean up politics, and a good place to start is with the people who cover them. For these presidential primaries, why don't we turn the tables on the media? I'd love to see political reporters take this campaign pledge. I spoke to my colleague Dr. S. (an old friend from the journamalism days) and he has some thoughts, as well.

Shall we begin?

1) I promise I will actually cover the issues and proposals in the campaign instead of focusing on the horse race. Not simply by calling whichever expert I already have in my Rolodex for a quick quote, but actually examining the issue in some depth, from several angles. If the results are ambiguous, I will say so.

Dr. S: I'm pretty sure there's a state law in Pennsylvania that requires reporters to quote G. Terry Madonna, so that's out.

2) Without regard to gender, I will not mention anyone's wardrobe or hair, with the following exceptions: A candidate has taken to wearing a crown and carrying a scepter -- or any hat lined with aluminum foil -- or someone has shaved their head, revealing a large "666."

Because we don't care. It's not important, don't try to hide behind these "color stories" to tell us what you really think about a candidate. We don't care what you think -- you liked George Bush, and we know how great your judgment was there, don't we?

Dr. S: No chance. Not with the first female candidate with the first real chance of winning. Until she came along, there was nothing to discuss in the way of political fashion: Blue suits and red ties across the board. [Ed. note: He forgot about Al Gore's famous earth tones.] But I guess today it's notable these days if a candidate, especially a Republican, isn't wearing an American flag pin. Attention politicians: I get it, you're patriotic. I kind of assumed it before, so I really didn't need the visual reminder. By the way, Mr. Candidate, congratulations on meeting the barest of minimum standards for your jobs.

3) I will not recycle the "what's on the candidate's iPod?" story.

Dr. S: Actually, the fact Bush admitted having the Beatles on his iPod had a real news angle -- at the time, you couldn't legally download Beatles tunes - which the MSM promptly ignored.

4) Unless I make them believe otherwise, readers don't care how much any candidate spends on any article of clothing or for personal services, so I will stop writing about it as if it's important. It's his or her money, and it's legal. I will also provide context.

We know a candidate pays $400 to have a haircut on his plane because, what, he's going to go down to the local Cut N' Curl and have the Secret Service take over the whole place -- pissing off all those old ladies with blue hair?

Dr. S: I realize this is about the hay being made over John Edwards' haircut, but what do you expect a bunch of bitter, balding, middle-aged men to do when someone who looks like he's under 100 years old enters their domain but make him out to be a pretty-boy pussy who's weak on terrah?

5) I will stop playing "gotcha." There's a big difference between a slip of the tongue and someone saying something truly offensive. I will learn the difference, and I'll stop trying to create issues where none exist.

Dr. S: What, and let Fox have all the ratings?

6) I will never, ever use the phrase "some say" about a candidate. Either someone with a name said it on the record, or it's just gossip with an agenda. I will stop being so cooperative with the political backstabbers.

Dr. S: What would ABC News do all day without the phrase "some say"? It's not like you can just come out and say "Rush Limbaugh says" and expect to retain any credibility.

7) I won't ever use unnamed sources without a compelling reason. If someone's life or job is in danger, okay. If someone simply wants to put the knife in without accountability, I promise I won't stand there and hold the sharpener. And if an unnamed source burns me with false information, they will not remain anonymous for long.

Dr. S: You realize that these poor reporters have to file a story every day, every single day (which is, as you recall, as often as Bush said he thinks about Iraq). If not for campaigns planting gossip under the cloak of anonymity, what are the reporters going to write about -- issues? When campaign A slams candidate B with an anonymous rumor, you get two stories out of it: the original rumor, then the folo in which campaign A denies planting it. Shit, it's Miller time.

8 ) I will check my facts, and then check them again.

You know, like Jeff Gerth neglected to do with Whitewater? Still waiting, Mr. New York Times Ombudsman...

Dr. S: Cribbing from yesterday's AP story counts as fact-checking. After all, that was verified before it ran, right?

9) If I have a mancrush (or a womancrush) on a candidate, I will keep it to myself.

I mean, really, it's embarrassing when reporters gush. It doesn't do great things for your credibility when you say things like "manly" or "rugged" about a candidate. You know, like so many of you did about George Bush? Yeah, you liked him. Don't think we forgot.

Dr. S: "He looks great in a military uniform. He looks great in that cowboy costume he wears when he goes west. I remember him standing at that fence with Colin Powell. Was the best picture in the 2000 campaign."

Someone get Chris Matthews a Kleenex.

10) I will hold the candidates to a uniform standard. I will not cover any candidate any differently from the others. Nothing whatsoever will be grounded in my feelings -- feelings are only a starting point in the search for facts. If, despite my best efforts, I can't find any facts that validate my feelings, I will keep them to myself until I have facts.

And finally, Dr. S. added this one:

11) I will not socialize with the people I am supposed to be covering, because it impairs my ability to be objective. I will not attend press corps dinners or invitations to dine with the queen, no matter how jealous my friends would be, and no matter how cool I would look to that guy/girl who wouldn't talk to me in high school.

I will remember that I am not a member of the group I am covering, no matter how badly I want to be. I will remember that my role is to inform the public, not simply to disseminate the candidates' messages, no matter how much I like or agree with them. I will remember that my role is not to convince people, but to provide them with the information they need to make informed choices on their own.