Ballot Box

More Minutes of the Media Conspiracy

The central committee of the media conspiracy met again today. (Click herefor last month’s minutes.) We were all supposed to be in Iowa to cover tonight’s Democratic debate, but given the cold weather and a series of interesting honoraria being given by the American Enterprise Institute, we decided to gather instead for lunch at the Palm Restaurant in Washington, D.C.

All the usual luminaries were there, with the exception of the incredibly dedicated David Broder, who video-conferenced in from Winterset, Iowa. Broder was out there wrapping up a marathon outdoor focus group with Methodists expected to attend next week’s caucuses. It was a bit difficult to hear him through his balaclava, but I’m pretty sure Broder’s point was that Bradley and McCain were peaking too early. He wanted to know what we should do to ensure the longest possible primary season.

Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal made the first suggestion: Why not just continue to sprinkle McCain and Bradley with adoring coverage? Gerry said he was planning to publish a column about how McCain was winning admiration in Washington for his maverick stance on campaign-finance reform. He added that every time he ran this column, he got a nice note from Fred Wertheimer.

Sam and Cokie could barely control their sniggering. It fell to Rick Berke of the New York Times to explain to Gerry why this wouldn’t work. For one thing, the story had to change–we journalists couldn’t very well keep writing that McCain and Bradley were on the rise. What’s more, Rick pointed out, reporters were already flirting with EOB in favor of McCain. EOB, Al Hunt explained to me, stands for “extreme and overt bias,” and it’s a violation of the conspiracy’s bylaws.

Howard Fineman of Newsweek offered an alternative to Seib’s idea. Why not offer a round of seemingly harsh but actually harmless stories about Bradley and McCain? This would create the appearance of media fair play without doing either of our favorites much damage. Howard pointed to McCain’s letters to the FCC as an example, though he noted that this kind of story always has the potential to get out of hand. The meeting dissolved into laughter when Howard joked that he nearly had to sit down and read the 500 letters McCain released last week.

Syndicated columnist Steve Roberts said he thought a barrage of mild criticism was a nifty idea because it would allow for two CWRs (“conventional-wisdom reversals,” according to Hunt) between now and the New Hampshire primary. McCain and Bradley could sag next week and then surge the following week, achieving “come from behind” victories in New Hampshire. The beauty of the plan, Steve said, was that it was possible without any actual candidate movement in the polls.

Seib loved the idea. He even offered to write the first draft of a column about how McCain had a highly conservative voting record. While appearing critical, this story could help McCain by putting distance between him and the liberal media, Seib said.

Roberts apologized for raining on Gerry’s parade, but said he thought the McCain-as-closet-conservative story would be more effective if it weren’t written by a columnist. He suggested handing the idea off to some “shoe-leather guys” at the Los Angeles Times.

Johnny Apple jumped in at this point to complain that shoe leather was what he was eating for lunch. Shouting for the “garçon,” he complained that his T-bone steak was overcooked and that he had powerful friends at the Bureau of Weights and Measures who might be interested in checking to see whether it really was 40 ounces as advertised. The waiter apologetically took the bone back to the kitchen and quickly brought Mr. Apple another.

Fineman then raised a new concern: Wouldn’t it be unfair to McCain to criticize him for being too conservative? According to conspiracy rules, all politicians were supposed to receive credit (“new respect”) for turning more liberal. But this problem was quickly resolved when McCain, who was attending the lunch as a guest of U.S. News & World Report, Time, Newsweek, Slate, and The New Yorker, said he wouldn’t mind the criticism a bit.

What of Bradley? Lance Morrow of AOL-Time Warner asked.

Sam and Cokie proposed that Bradley be charged with general arrogance since he wouldn’t say publicly what his favorite movie was (while acknowledging off-the-record to reporters that it was Look Who’s Talking II). Fineman added that Bradley could also be charged with hypocrisy since “Mr. Sharp Elbows” wasn’t living up to his own elevated standard of positive campaigning.

“Willis Hortoo, Willis Hortoo,” Jack Germond exclaimed, perhaps referring to a recent interview in which Bradley castigated Gore for discovering Willie Horton in the 1988 campaign. “Martini.”

Morrow said Bradley’s arrogance and hypocrisy were both fine issues and that the newsmagazines would work out the details of these criticisms at their usual Friday planning session. He reminded Fineman that it was Newsweek’s turn to put together this week’s outline. The Dean, who by this point was mostly covered in a snowdrift, was impatient to bring the meeting to a close. He wished everyone a lively campaign and reminded us to dress warmly for his toboggan party in Dixville Notch. He said I could bring the hot cocoa.