The Bill and Bob Show: Must-see TV

After asking Gary Hart whether he was an adulterer, Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor was attacked for cheapening American poltics. Now he's leading a cleanup campaign and the networks are jumping on the bandwagon.

By Stephen Talbot

Published June 4, 1996 9:21AM (EDT)

From a command post deep in the leafy suburbs of Bethesda, MD, a former Washington Post reporter is plotting a fundamental change in the way presidential candidates campaign this fall. Paul Taylor's crusade -- free, prime time access to voters, unmediated by journalists -- might have seemed quixotic, but now appears on the verge of success. In October, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole may be speaking directly to us during breaks in "Seinfeld" or "ER." Not in 30 sec. pit bull attack ads, paid for by their respective campaigns, but in two-to five-minute segments provided free by the networks.
Just think: we could hear what the candidates are really trying to say, even if Dole keeps ending sentences with "whatever," and Clinton keeps stealing from the GOP phrase book.

Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and aided by Walter Cronkite, Taylor has wrung major concessions from the networks -- "when you've got Uncle Walter on your side, anything's possible" --
although there is lingering resistance from TV executives who fear viewers will flee the room or switch to cable whenever Clinton, Dole or a third party candidate appear on screen. Some of the networks would rather provide free time in the midst of news programs, instead of cutting into prime time entertainment. "Nobody's got it exactly how I hoped," says Taylor, "but we've come a long way and I think we're gonna get there."

We spoke to Taylor, who works out of his home, about attack ads, voter cynicism, an arrogant press corps, sex and the Presidency.

Your proposal sounds good, but it won't eliminate attack ads because the candidates are convinced that they work.

But how do they work? They work by persuading voters who may have been inclined to vote for your opponent, not to vote. That's the easiest way to move people. So negative ads actually shrink the electorate. Is it any wonder that we have the lowest voter turnout of any major democracy in the world and the highest level of voter cynicism? Attack ads are like pro wrestling. They're all about artifice, fakery and distortion. Let's turn the campaign into a real boxing match. If you put candidates on the screen, back and forth on alternating nights, you accomplish that. You hold them accountable.

Voters aren't just cynical about candidates and their manipulation of the media, they're cynical about us, the press.

Exactly. My proposal is in part a response to that cynicism. Here's my favorite statistic. Not only has the average sound bite on the network evening news for a presidential candidate gone down from 42 seconds in 1968 to 7.2 seconds in the 1996 presidential primaries,
but reporters covering them got six times more air time than the candidates! We have an essential role to play as watchdogs, as scrutinizers, as truth-tellers. But 6 to 1?

I think the American public is a little fed up with the reflexive, smart alecky cynicism of the TV pundits. I think we owe it to the public -- and to journalism -- to back out of the picture, every now and then. The most sacred transaction that happens in a democracy is the transaction between candidate and citizen. Let's carve out some moment on prime time television when that can happen.

In his recent book, "Breaking the News," James Fallows blames television and celebrity journalism for debasing democracy. You agree?

The journalists on those TV shows are often very good journalists. I count many of them as friends. But I don't think they put a very attractive face of journalism forward. That edge, that attitude. They talk about politics with a smirk and a swagger. When I started out in journalism, "Meet the Press" was the model, very stately, perhaps a little dull. But the show was really about the public official, and the reporters were there, in what I consider to be their place, asking questions off on the side.

Now what happens is the shows are about the reporters. The candidate comes on. They joust back and forth. Then the candidate leaves and we're left with the host, the reporters, talking, in a sense, behind the back of their guest. It's like on Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend, the guests have gone home, and we can all talk, "Well, you know the only reason he said that is he's 18 points behind in the poll. You can't believe that guy." I don't think that's a good model for journalism. And it's sad to me that the bright 20-year-olds starting out in journalism now have this as their career goal.

And I'll tell you, in Washington, D.C., it's the journalist who sits on the electronic throne and everybody else comes and goes. There's no journalistic culture like that anywhere else in the world.

A recent New Yorker story suggested that your reform campaign is really your way of doing penance for asking Gary Hart back in 1988 if he'd committed adultery, setting in motion events that forced him out of the race. That you are so guilt-ridden that you had a midlife crisis and "quit the profession, exchanging (your) press pass for a hair shirt." True?

No, but it made a pretty good story. It's very flattering to be the lead guy in "The Talk of the Town." And yeah, I'm the guy who famously or infamously asked Gary Hart whether he had ever committed adultery. This was a couple days after the Miami Herald reported he had spent a weekend with a woman, Donna Rice, who was about half his age and not his wife. But that's not what drove me here.

I believe the question I asked at that particular moment as the Gary Hart story was unfolding was absolutely appropriate. I have thought about it a lot because it created a firestorm, both in and out of journalism. I got a lot of criticism from fellow journalists and a lot of nasty mail from people all over the country. But asking about the character of the men and women who seek public office is perfectly legitimate. And listen, I never thought that Hart was hounded out of the race by the press and the allegations of adultery. In my opinion, it was a crisis of his own making. His money was drying up, his political support was drying up.

Bill Clinton had his own crisis with a woman coming forward and saying, "I had a 12-year relationship with him." And Clinton said, "I already confessed in a general sense that our marriage has not always been perfect. I'm not going to talk about it anymore." His political support stayed with him and he weathered the crisis.

I can't help but think of (former French President Francois) Mitterand's funeral. In the front row was his wife and right behind her, his mistress and illegitimate child, on display for the whole nation. No one seemed to bat an eyelash.

There's a line, I think it's from the Brits, that these sexual scandals are best exposed, enjoyed and ignored. The best thing you can do as a society is have your fun, make your jokes -- everyone's titillated and laughing at the office water cooler -- and then get beyond it to more substantive fare.

So John F. Kennedy is going to be the last president to be able to sleep with a Marilyn Monroe and not have it reported at the time?

We'll see. My guess is that over time, the standards that are imposed on elected officials are roughly in sync with the kind of standards that society wants to impose on itself generally.

After the Hart campaign, you spent several years covering South African politics for the Post. I know it got pretty rough. You were shot. You were kidnapped. What impact did that have on you?

That was a wonderful reporting experience. I was there from '92 to '95, covering the first democratic election in the country's history that made Nelson Mandela president. It was a thrilling, moving experience to see this sort of damned country emerge from agony and oppression. To watch that human spirit rise to the occasion was a wonderful story to report. I don't want to sound all rosyeyed because South Africa remains a very difficult country and is going to be a hard place for many years. But that experience, I think, made me more idealistic and more hopeful about the possibilities of reinvigorating democracy in this country.

Quotes of the day

The Outsiders

"Journalists' stance of being against, of being a part of the adversary culture, is disconnected from any Madisonian conception of democracy. Suppose being against means it will be impossible to maintain democratic institutions? Journalists say, 'That's not my problem.'"

-- James Carey, professor of journalism at Columbia University, and author of "Communication as Culture," interviewed in the June issue of Esquire magazine.

Stephen Talbot

Stephen Talbot is a producer for ITVS / Independent Lens, based in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Stephen Talbot

Related Topics ------------------------------------------