Oprah may have an air of gravitas, but what about the campaign coverage itself? National Journal columnist William Powers argues that – for a variety of reasons – the soft feature has become the entrée of political reporting and the hard policy story, the side dish.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oprah may have an air of gravitas, but what about the campaign coverage itself? National Journal columnist William Powers argued recently that - for a variety of reasons - the soft feature has become the entrée of political reporting and the hard policy story, the side dish.
Powers has identified three categories of what he calls "softness," starting with the, quote, "small-town color piece." WILLIAM POWERS: For example, there was one recently in Derry, New Hampshire. This was USA Today, Rudy Giuliani at a strip mall. The reporter wrote, "As media cameras whirred at a diner, Giuliani played with the baby granddaughter of the owner and waxed appreciative of the state's foliage. And then he moves on to the Hudson Café, where he discussed his collection of elephant ties - [LAUGHTER] - and drew his plan for a border fence on a little piece of paper."
Now, there you get a little bit of policy there. He drew his plan for a border fence, so immigration's coming in. It's kind of the diner story, the classic category - you know, sit down with people in the diner where the candidate's campaigning somewhere nearby and talk to them. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, in fact, you noted that on The Washington Post blog there's actually a regular feature called Candidates in Diners. WILLIAM POWERS: Yeah. They have a new category on The Washington Post campaign blog, and the new category is called The Diners. [LAUGHS] And it's a recurring feature. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do they feel they're advancing the story by moving from diner A to diner B to diner C, but not if they go back and further anatomize war policy? WILLIAM POWERS: You're not advancing the story, but when you go from diner A to diner B, at least you're encountering some new character who has some new feature about them that you can write a few sentences about that are going to feel grabby when you hand it into your editor or producer.
It's not going to be revisiting the same old war issues that actually feel like they haven't changed since two weeks ago. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But these characters in the diners haven't changed for about 45 years. [POWERS LAUGHS]
Another category, the second category you talk about is the human interest take. We saw an example of that not long ago where there was a big article on managing kids on the campaign trail. WILLIAM POWERS: Yes. There was The New York Times - I believe it was on a Sunday - on the front page, a feature story about how many candidates this time around have children under the age of 10, and isn't that fascinating. The story was written with a nice off-touch - I appreciated it - but it was another example of this kind of focus on the human interest side of the candidates - now, not the public in the diners but the candidates themselves and their families - filling all this empty news hole.
Another example would be, in my opinion, a notable one this summer, was the rise of Jeri Thompson, Fred Thompson's wife, as a figure of intense interest to the news media and on the Internet long before he was a candidate.
I mean, it was remarkable. There were Jeri Thompson stories everywhere. There was a Jeri Thompson story on the front page of The Washington Post in early August called The Rise of Jeri Thompson. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, yeah. That's really remarkable - a tall, willowy, much younger blonde. WILLIAM POWERS: Yeah, exactly. There was a big ABC News story about the Romney campaign, “It's All in the Family,” all about the sons of Mitt. Families always figure in campaigns, but I feel, my own perception this time around, is because of the length of the campaign season, the families are looming much larger and filling a lot more news holes. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you see a real difference between this campaign and previous campaigns with regard to what you call the soft stuff, or is it merely a matter of schedule, that things began earlier, cause they begin earlier every single time. I've made that observation practically every election I've covered as a media reporter. WILLIAM POWERS: I think it's schedule but, you know, it's also technology. It is also the explosion of the number, the sheer number of outlets. When, for example, there have been all those debates where the war policy has been gone over a number of times - often the same questions being asked in repeated debates - and all these different news outlets were watching each other have access to that material, there's a feeling that, okay, we've gone through those issues. There's no new way to frame those questions. There's no way to break a new story on those fronts. Let's go to the Edwards family. [BROOKE LAUGHS] You know? BROOKE GLADSTONE: So now let's go to the last of the three soft story categories that you point to in your column - the "metastories." WILLIAM POWERS: Yes. These are the stories that are about the story, in a way - stories that are about the contenders using the media to shape their own images, or, secondarily, opponents allegedly taking swipes at each other and the media sort of supposedly seeing the warfare behind the scenes, the prime example this summer I think being the alleged story of Obama's wife, Michelle Obama, taking a swipe at the Clintons over how they run their family.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which she really didn't. WILLIAM POWERS: Which she really didn't, which was a kind of a stump speech she had been giving for some time, but one reporter in Chicago said it - almost in passing in a piece - that it looked like she was taking a swipe at the Clintons, and it just became this giant meta-phenomenon that really amounted to nothing.
It was one of these kind of not really a fully fleshed-out story, but let's do it. What the heck. It's all about how they're playing in the media. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Then there's the Oprah fundraiser, which we talked about at the top of this hour. That's not just about the money, is it? I mean, some have decried the Oprahfication of the process in past election cycles, but now she's literally part of the process. WILLIAM POWERS: She's part of the process, and this one is especially fertile for the soft coverage because Oprah is an entertainment figure. And because she's an entertainment figure, there are just an infinite number of levels to which you can take this story. You can do the story, who are Oprah's people? What is her demographic? You can do the story about Oprah never having gone this far before. Why is she doing it? You can do the story about Oprah and Illinois, since Obama's an Illinois senator.
Oprah's influence is so large that I would argue that this is actually a more worthy meta-story than any that I can think of. I mean, if you look at what she does for books, you know, if you translate it to candidates, this may actually be a real force here. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill, thank you very much. WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: William Powers writes the Off Message column for National Journal Magazine.