Ballot Box

Minutes of the Media Conspiracy

The central committee of the Conspiracy spent Memorial Day at a barbecue at Ben and Sally’s house in East Hampton. (Click here and here for previous minutes.) It was quite a reunion, given that most of us hadn’t seen each other since the Hess-Ornstein Conference on running mates back on March 8. There were dry martinis, grilled lamb (for those who reached the buffet ahead of Johnny Apple), and war stories aplenty from the primaries.

David Broder, freshly returned from his international travels for what sounds like an amazing series on entitlement reform in eleven democracies, called the meeting to order. Broder, the beloved and respected “Dean” of the Washington Press Corps, said that while we were all enjoying the traditional pre-convention lull, the committee faced an important decision about whether to cover the third-party candidates and conventions. This year, he noted, it wasn’t just a matter of Ross Perot. We faced a probable fight for the Reform Party nomination as well as Ralph Nader running on the Green Party ticket. Should we write about this stuff or not?

Howie Kurtz, the media critic for the Washington Post, looked up from his laptop to say that he too was very concerned about this matter. On the Jitney, he had written two columns on the subject–one raising questions about why the press wasn’t covering third parties and another raising questions about whether third-party coverage was getting excessive. Howie said he wouldn’t know which one to run until we figured out whether we were covering the third-party conventions. The lack of a decision was delaying publication of his book on conflicts of interest in the specialty trade press, which he had hoped to finish in a cab on the way to CNN last week.

Gerry Seib of the Journal suggested that Kurtz publish both columns spaced a month apart.

Kurtz took umbrage at this comment. He said he would of course publish both, but had to know which to run first. He then pointed out that Seib had a potential conflict of interest himself, since the third-party conventions might interfere with his summer vacation plans and force the cancellation of non-refundable airplane tickets. He and Mavin Kalb had discussed the matter off-air. Howie also thought there might be a quick book in the whole question of conflicts of interest in third-party coverage.

Howard Fineman of Newsweek, who was punching a handheld wireless device of some sort, interrupted this testy exchange to point out that it was appearing in real time in an article in

Kurtz said he wasn’t worried about that. had a lot of conflicts of interest that he planned to write about extensively in Brill’s Content or possibly in the Washington Post or CNN or MSNBC. For instance, its owners stood to profit if their publication made money. 

Al Hunt of the Journal tried to bring the debate back to the matter at hand. He said that he thought we had already decided to cover Pat Buchanan and the Reform Party, on the grounds that Buchanan could take votes away from Bush and help Gore.

The problem, as most of us quickly realized, was consistency. Ralph Nader was now running about twice as well as Buchanan in the polls, and could make a real difference in California, a must-win state for Gore. If we were going to cover Buchanan, we’d have to cover Nader, too, so as to avoid getting limbaughed. Safire reminded everyone of this. “Does anyone here really want to cover the Green Party convention?” he asked. They only hands that went up were Broder’s, Ron Brownstein’s, and Paul Gigot’s.

Johnny Apple, who had been busy directing the team of basters in the BBQ pit, looked up from his spit with a scowl. Neither candidate had a chance in hell, he sputtered. Third parties held their conventions in distasteful towns with third-rate wine lists. Gigot’s enthusiasm for covering the Greens seemed to especially annoy him. Waving a large paintbrush that sprinkled golden droplets of lamb fat on the picnic tables as he spoke, he scolded Gigot, telling him that Pulitzer Prize-winning columnists are not supposed to wear their medallions in public, especially over a bare chest.

Brownstein of the L.A. Times said that Apple was oversimplifying. Of course we would not give Nader and Buchanan Level One coverage, which is reserved for candidates who have a chance to win. The question was whether they should get Level Two, for candidates who can seriously affect the result of an election, or Level Three. (According to Al Hunt, Level Three is “passionate nutcake” status, which means the odd Saturday feature story and no day-to-day reportage.) Brownstein made the case for Level Two. Nader, he said, could throw California to Bush, and Buchanan could help Gore in the Rust Belt. Either of them could potentially decide the election by getting only a small share of the vote.

Cokie and Steve Roberts then spoke in unison. They said they doubted that either Nader or Buchanan would meet the test of Level Two coverage, given that neither was likely to get even 5 percent of the vote. In their opinion, both deserved only the Level Three status we had accorded Alan Keyes in the GOP primaries. 

This roused John McCain from the croquet lawn, where he was staging a re-enactment of a P.O.W. escape attempt with Tucker Carlson of the Weekly Standard, Jake Tapper of Salon, and John Dickerson of Time, whom he had enlisted to play his cellmates. McCain said he didn’t think Keyes deserved to be covered at all, or to be included in the GOP debates, where he’d hogged the microphone. Keyes had mau-maued us all into taking him almost seriously. Why Keyes and Buchanan and not Lyndon LaRouche, who did better in some of the Democratic primaries than Keyes had done in the GOP? McCain wondered. 

While there was a good deal of sympathy for McCain’s position, the general consensus was that we couldn’t get away with ignoring Nader and Buchanan completely. On a voice-vote, we opted for Level Three coverage for Nader and Buchanan. Attendance at the third-party conventions is optional, with no conspiracy cocktail hours held. The Dean said that was enough business and that we could reconsider the matter if necessary at our next meeting, which will be at McCain’s Fourth of July BBQ.