What role should journalists play in the 2008 election?
Calvin Trillin is a journalist, humorist and novelist. Best known for his humorous writing about food and eating, he is also the author of several books of fiction, nonfiction essays, comic verse and plenty of more serious journalism.
Trillin was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1935. He received his BA from Yale University, where he was chair of the Yale Daily News, in 1957. In 1963, after a serving in the U.S. Army and then working at Time magazine for a short time, Trillin joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine, where his reporting on racial integration at the University of Georgia eventually developed into his first book, An Education in Georgia: Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes and the Integration of the University of Georgia. Trillin's 1967-1982 column "U.S. Journal" for The New Yorker documented events throughout the nation, both funny and serious; since 1984, he has written a series of longer, narrative pieces under the title "American Chronicles."
Trillin is also a longtime contributor to The Nation magazine - is, in fact, the single most prolific contributor to that magazine to date. From 1978-1980 he penned a column called "Variation"; from 1984-1990 another called "Uncivil Liberties"; and from 1990 to the present a weekly one called "Deadline Poem" consisting of humorous poems about current events.
Calvin Trillin's most recent novel is Deciding the Next Decider: The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme (Nov. 2008)
Calvin Trillin: You know it’s interesting. I read something the other day that made a very interesting point. I think it was in conjunction with the debate that was on YouTube where citizens . . . civilians, as we would call them, asked questions as opposed to reporters. And the debate was just as silly as the other debates. I mean there were nine people. It’s not really a debate. It was just sort of a nonsense sound bite thing. But the interesting thing was not the answers, but the questions. Reporters tend to ask questions about how the campaign is going, or how something’s gonna play compared to something else. The reporters are generally interested in the process, and that’s what’s so stupid about saying, “Oh, you know, 80% of ‘em vote Democratic.” I mean they don’t . . . In the first place they’re not ideologues. That’s just how they vote. And also they’re much more interesting in the game than they are in the ideology. And reporters in general are interested in politics and bored by government. So that’s why the minute the election’s over they start talking about the next election. And that’s why when you think about, about 80% – I just made up that figure – of the coverage of an American election is about who’s gonna win . . . something we’re all going to know on election night. Even if the reporters are all death rate, we’re still gonna know it. They’re gonna count the votes and we’re gonna know who won. So why do they keep telling us who’s going to win or lose – it’s not really the point – rather than tell us what that guy really believes or what he’s likely to do? I think that the other thing that reporters ought to try to do . . . And you know, I don’t mean that they don’t do some of this, but the actual issues of a campaign aren’t usually the issues that the president deals with. I mean if you voted on the issues, you would have voted for what’s discussed in the campaign. You would have voted in the Kennedy-Nixon election according to what your beliefs were on the future of the islands of Quemoy and Matsu. That became a big issue between Kennedy and Nixon – would we go to war to protect Quemoy and Matsu, two islands off Taiwan that were sometimes shelled by the mainland communist China. That’s not the difference between Kennedy and Nixon. And that’s not . . . And of course once the election was over, that was the end of Quemoy and Matsu. And nobody has heard of Quemoy and Matsu since. So I think that somehow the election coverage should really tell us, “What kind of person is that?” Because the decisions he’s gonna make are not the decisions that are talked about during the campaign. There are other decisions.
Recorded on: 9/5/07
Reporters tend to be more interested in process, Trillin says.
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