July 15, 2004
Grass-Roots Level Campaign Coverage
When I was covering big shot political campaigns for the Los Angeles Times, I was treated like a big shot.
I sampled barrages of press releases, announcements of events, hot gossip, position papers, parties and invitations. I had many opportunities to interview candidates. The fact that I worked for the Times made me especially popular. Life was sweet on the campaign plane and in the restaurants and bars where the exclusive club of political reporters and campaign aides hung out.
That is not what happens since I have become a part-time political columnist for The Jewish Journal. Now, nobody writes, nobody calls.
I'm not going to reminisce about great days gone by. Rather, I'd thought I'd write about life as a community journalist and how it gives me a much better idea of voter sentiment than the drearily conventional, corporately cautious political reporting and analysis on television and in the newspapers.
I read or skim four newspapers a day. Working at home, I often flip on my desk-side television set to check on the news. In other words, I'm a news junkie.
The election analysis is all the same. For days, the political press was almost totally occupied with Sen. John Kerry's choice for the vice presidential candidate. When Sen. John Edwards was selected, everyone I saw or read had the same take: Terrific speaker; inexperienced; shady trial lawyer; fighter for the forgotten.
It was as if the journalists were afraid to stray off the beaten track or leave the reporting pack to have an original thought. Today's political reporting is a compendium of conventional wisdom. The motto of the press corps is: "On one hand.... And on the other...."
And the conventional wisdom is often wrong. President Ford was not clumsy. Al Gore was not a compulsive truth stretcher. Nor is President Bush the fun-loving wisecracker we read about in reports flowing from his 2000 campaign press plane.
Yet that's how they were portrayed, and pretty soon erroneous conventional wisdom was accepted as if it were true, doing irreparable damage to Ford and Gore.
Since insiders no longer bother to spin me, I'm a free man.
The other day, for example, I wanted to do a story about Kerry's presidential campaign. Lacking the usual sources, I checked out the California For Kerry Web site.
I saw that volunteers would be manning tables for Kerry in the San Fernando Valley in the next few days, distributing campaign literature and registering voters in a practice called "tabling."
That sounded promising. The San Fernando Valley is prime country for a Jewish community journalist. Parts of the Valley have substantial Jewish populations. And there's a feel of the grassroots about politics in the Valley. It's not like the Westside, where Democratic politics are now limited to celebrities and other rich people throwing and attending high priced fundraisers.
I e-mailed Beverlee Stone-Goodman, who was to run a table at a Target in Sherman Oaks. She replied that Target had "received word from the corporate office that they will no longer be allowed to have any kind of solicitation on their premises, including the Salvation Army bell ringer at Christmas." She suggested I contact Agi Kessler, house-party coordinator for Valley for Kerry. Kessler steered me to a table operating at the Promenade in Woodland Hills, adjacent to the AMC theaters: "This is a particularly good location because they are showing 'Fahrenheit 9/11.'"
It was a great idea. The volunteers at the table gave me a nugget of news. Theatergoers were heading directly from "Fahrenheit" to the table to register and pick up pamphlets. The Saturday before the movie opened, the volunteers registered six. On the Saturday after the opening, they signed up 35. "One man changed his registration from Republican to Democratic after seeing the movie," said Corinne Schnur of Topanga, who, along with Joan Campbell of Woodland Hills, took time out for an interview.
I also got a sense of Kerry's great problem: Too many Democrats dislike Bush more than they like Kerry. As one volunteer at the Promenade told me, "I'd vote for Peter Rabbit before Bush."
At the Kerry booth at the Studio City farmers market a day later, Chris Long, a special-ed teacher at North Hollywood High School, said "the number of people stopping by has increased every Sunday since October." Like the Promenade volunteers, he said, "we get a lot stopping by who say 'anybody but Bush.'" I wondered if Michael Moore would energize more hard-core liberal Democrats than Kerry. I also doubt that dislike of Bush is enough to win Kerry the presidency.
Granted, visits to a mall and a farmers market are not a scientific way to gauge how the election is going. But I drove home from the farmers market on the Fourth of July with the feeling that I had gotten at least a hint of how real people, including those from my community, felt about the Kerry campaign.
I think I'll cover the presidential campaign from the San Fernando Valley.
Bill Boyarsky's column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at email@example.com.