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The Politics of Coverage

Heading into the Republican National Convention,
CBS Evening News
Anchor and Managing Editor Dan Rather faces his 10th presidential campaign since joining the network in 1962 and the 13th of his career. He has been anchoring
Evening News since 1981.
B&C's Bill McConnell talked to the veteran journalist about this year's race and the state of election coverage.

Is the media doing a good job covering the 2004 election? Or is there too much attention on the Swift Boat flap?

I would like us to concentrate more on issues and less on campaign process. But there is always a tendency to go with what's sensational. Also, we're human, and humans keep making the same mistakes. In the end, what difference does it make what one candidate or the other did or didn't do during the Vietnam War? In some ways, that war is as distant as the Napoleonic campaigns. What's far more import is this: Do they have an exit strategy for Iraq? If so, what is it? How will they address the national deficit? And what are the chances their plans will work?

Isn't this a case of the campaigns setting the news agenda rather than the reporters?

I wish there were a simple answer. Since the beginnings of political coverage, journalists have been captive to some degree by candidates and campaigns. Ethical and principled reporters should come to campaigns trying to separate brass tacks from bull shine. But nobody can do that perfectly. To some extent, journalists and reportage manage the campaigns, and, to some extent, the campaigns manage the coverage.

In the Swift Boat case, I don't think it was the press allowing somebody else to set the agenda. Bush's forces raised questions. It's legitimate to report what they were raising, and report what Republicans said the answers were. Where some of the press failed the test—and I don't exclude myself—is how quickly the reporting followed behind the ads and asked whether their answers were truthful.

So there is a real story here?

When Kerry made the decision to make his war service a centerpiece, if not the
centerpiece of the campaign, he opened himself up to attacks. If Kerry loses, we may look on this period as a decisive hour. An important part of the story remains why Kerry and his campaign responded so slowly, so meekly and so weakly.

Are you expecting news at the convention?

The whole nature of political conventions has changed. Over last 30-plus years, the parties decided conventions would not be places where nominations happened or where any news happened. Now, they're basically infomercials selling a product—no different from ads for kitchen implements, like the kind you find on cable channels.

CBS and the other broadcast networks are getting flak for covering so little of the conventions. Can't you do more?

Unless something dramatically changes between now and 2008, coverage will shrink further. I would always like to have more airtime, particularly in prime time. But given the reality, the over-the-airwaves network coverage is about right. Would I like another hour to cover Monday's opening? Yes. But it's very difficult to make the argument on the basis of newsworthiness.

Low ratings and budget pressures are also killing convention coverage. How else are they affecting news coverage?

Budget pressures manifest themselves most importantly in terms of international coverage. I can't speak for other networks, but at CBS, that's less true after 9/11. Whatever you think of Sumner Redstone or Mel Karmazin or Les Moonves, their basic question in the wake of 9/11 was: What do you need?

There's still not enough money for overseas bureaus, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are stories we're barely covering. For example, there is a large ongoing and hugely important war in Colombia. It's a battle for the entire northern part of South America. We've made some efforts at CBS, but it goes virtually uncovered. I'd cover it on an ongoing basis.

Another neglected story is China's drive to become, first, a world economic superpower and, second, a military superpower. This may be the most important ongoing story of the early 21st century. That's just the beginning of my dream list. I don't confuse my dreams with reality. We're getting the maximum we can out of the resources at hand.