Ole Miss Students Ask and Rick Stengel, TIME Managing Editor, Answers Their Presidential Debate Questions

Posted: September 16, 2008 in News

The following article appeared on page one of The Oxford Eagle newspaper on Monday Sept. 15:


UM Students Interview TIME Editor About Debate

By Samir A. Husni
Special to The Eagle

On Thursday Richard Stengel, TIME managing editor, was one of two moderators at the Forum on Service and Civic Engagement at Columbia University in New York that featured Barack Obama and John McCain.
On Friday students from Ole Miss turned the tables on Stengel by asking him some questions about the media’s coverage of the presidential campaigns and his thoughts on next week’s debate at The University of Mississippi.
The UM students are enrolled in the Journalism 495 Internship class that is preparing the students to work with the media expected to be in Oxford next week for the Sept. 26 debate. The students submitted the questions to their professor, Samir Husni, chairman of the journalism department, and he, in turn, asked Stegnel for his answers.

Do you feel that the media has actually been biased in its’ coverage favoring one candidate over the other?

I think the media is very biased, extremely biased, biased in favor of stories that people want to read, biased in favor of getting those stories on the front page, biased in favor of getting those stories talked about. I think, yes, there are classic studies that show that people in the media tend to be more liberal than people at large, but the main media bias that people have is for stories that are interesting, for facts that people don’t know. I think, as far as what you had during the primaries, was a really interesting and historically unprecedented race on the democratic side and two candidates in the case of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who were enormous draws for people. That did consume a lot of the air in the room and much of the focus, and I think that seems to be where much of the criticism and the bias comes from. I don’t know if that answers the question for students. They probably wouldn’t have follow-ups, but that is my feelings about it.

How come we have not seen or heard anything about Joe Biden? They said that all of the coverage has been shifted to Sarah Palin, but the other Vice President is not receiving as much publicity?

I am stepping off the last question. My criticism of the media is not bias, it is confidence. I think what we have seen with Joe Biden vs. Sarah Palin, and part of this is that people alas from the media, and this is part of our problem is that we don’t think about our readers and our viewers so much. We are thinking about ourselves and our own media eco chamber and a lot of people feel that Joe Biden is a known quantity. He ran this time for the presidency, so he was in so far as people are vetted and their biography are done, that was done in primary process, which is not to say that people don’t do it again. Sarah Palin is the new girl in town, the flavor of the month. She is a complete unknown and people get excited about that. Journalists get excited about that, and certainly in terms of people following the Sarah Palin story, whether it is her biography or her views on the issues. People have been fascinated by it. That goes back to my original point about bias people are biased in favor of stories that people want to read. Sarah Palin is the story that people want to read these days.

How do you try to keep TIME from being bias toward one of the candidates?

We try very hard. I want stories that have a strong point of view and that are reported analysis and I don’t want journalists to camouflage the fact that they feel one point of view is better than another or one critique is smarter than another. I try to have the wings of the plane be leveled and devote as much attention to the republican candidate as the democratic candidate and try to be equally tough on both and equally fair to both. For example, we have the candidates writing pieces for the magazine every other week on topics that we give them and this week is on national service. They each have the same number of words and they each have the same number of topics and we publish it. That in itself is a kind of print forum that we do every week and again, in so far as the Democratic primary process was more interesting, lasted longer than the Republican side, we did devote more time and space to that, but I think that we were just covering the story.

Does TIME Magazine allow its’ staff to be a part of a political party?

We do not allow people to actively campaign or participate in campaigns. They are obviously not allowed to be on staff or consult for campaigns. For example, Samantha Powers, a contributing writer for us and contributing columnist, and when she decided at one point to go full-time staff for Barack Obama, we suspended her column and we just don’t go for that. I haven’t gotten any requests from people that say they are going to work for Senator McCain or Senator Obama. One of the things we don’t do, and I know some journalists say that journalists shouldn’t even vote, I certainly don’t believe that should be the case and I certainly encourage people to vote and I believe that no matter who people vote for, that they can be objective and unbiased in their reporting, writing and their coverage too.

I remember you writing an editorial one time questioning whether journalists should endorse candidates.

It was actually more towards newspapers. I felt that, particularly young readers of newspapers, if even such a species exist, don’t get the classic Chinese Wall between the editorial page and the news pages and that the editorial pages are kind of a distantial limb of when newspapers were once tied to political parties and I think that younger readers don’t get that. If a newspaper endorses Senator McCain, why would there be fair to Barack Obama or if a newspaper endorses Barack Obama, why would they be fair to Senator McCain? I think that people who grew up in the newspaper culture and know about that divide and how carefully it was protected, can understand that. I think it is real disservice to younger readers and they don’t get it.

How influential do you feel the younger generation is on American politics?

I think that the younger generation is incredibly influential, not only in politics, but in business and commerce because they are the sort of bell weather of where things are going. You have to think in this particular election, in some ways they are a wild card, because I think the polling this year, and we will see when the results are finally in, has been much more difficult than any time in history, not just because more and more people, particularly young people, use cell phones and you can’t call them at home the way traditional pollsters do, but that there are people who are coming out of the woodwork, young people in particular, that pollsters don’t know about. We have seen how that has affected some of the democratic parties and it will be interesting to see how it affects the general election.

If you were moderating the panel here, the first debate between Obama and McCain at The University of Mississippi, what would be the first question you would ask them?

What I would ask them is that we really want the American people to get a glimpse of both of you, of who you really are, what you really believe government could do and should do, how you view the country and I would want them both to be kind of stripped away of so much of the preparation that they are doing and speak from the heart. It is a little like Joe Klein’s recent book where he says politicians should be unleashed from their consultants, and it wouldn’t so much be the first question but the ground rules that they have to sort of abandon all of their crutches that they have carefully built up over the months and speak directly and candidly from the heart.

Ole Miss and Oxford will be in the eye of the hurricane because the debate is here. Do you think the location of the debate is going to be of any importance or do you think the history of Ole Miss and Mississippi will be a factor in this debate?

Yes. I think the candidates would be very smart and it would be in their interests to play up the special history of Ole Miss and the historic role that James Meredith played in integrating the campus and what a symbol that was for America. I think it shows how far we’ve come in such short time, particularly with the first African American presidential nominee from a major party, I think both candidates need to address that and I think it would be to their benefit and to the benefit of the American public.

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