At Large : What have we learned?
Two down, one to go, in The Times' three-evening series on journalists and journalism - how they came to do what they do, how the job works today, and what might it look like tomorrow. The third and last discussion will occur Sunday evening, at 8 pm, at the Chilmark Community Center. Charles Sennott, formerly of the Boston Globe and now the editor of an Internet-based international news service, will be the speaker Sunday. The Times, marking its 25th publishing year, has hosted the series, in cooperation with the Chilmark Community Center, as part of an effort to satisfy our curiosity - and what we suspected was a similar curiosity on the part of non-journalists in the Vineyard community - about news gathering, how it has changed, and what it may become. There is no charge to attend.
We've been delighted that more than 200 people - seasonal residents and year-rounders, old, young, and in between - have attended each of the earlier discussions, the first with Chris Wallace, the host of Fox News Sunday, and the second with Mara Liasson, the national political correspondent for National Public Radio. We've learned that interest may not be as high as we thought in the nuts and bolts of journalism, as it is practiced today and may change in the future. But, without question, interest in the presidential contest is fevered. Indeed, if there has been a disappointment, it's that for every question about journalism's inner workings or how we will get the news tomorrow, there have been 10 about whether it will be Obama or McCain, or is Obama getting a free ride from the adoring press, or will McCain's age hurt him, or why is McCain's campaign so ineffectual. It isn't that we wanted people to ask - ho-hum - what brand of digital camera do the war photographers use, or how many megapixels are necessary, or Mac or PC. But, this competition to succeed President Bush and solve all the problems of the planet (we use to refer to the world, then it was the globe, but we seem to need a larger stage, something spatially galactic, so now it's planet) has been underway for nearly two years already, and it's all anyone talks about in the national news business, so we thought we might try to give it a rest. Nope, folks weren't having it.
As of the end of July, 2008, we've learned from journalists in the thick of it that the election is all about Obama, that he is ahead of McCain, by a handful of percentage points in most polls. We've also learned that almost no one has a good thought for Republicans, and that whatever happens in Obama/McCain, the House and Senate are likely to be run by Democrats, in strength in the House, not so much in the Senate. We've learned that Obama, despite his pizzazz and his well-run campaign and his lead in the polls and his youth and vigor and his party's inevitability, has not closed the sale. After all, why are he and McCain so close in the polls? People are not quite sure about Obama.
McCain, the well-known competitor, has a record to run on, a reputation for courage and independence, and especially a record of willingness to find common ground with Democrats. Obama talks about bringing people together, but has no record of doing so. McCain has been repeatedly in the middle of efforts, many of them successful, to bridge the partisan chasm. Which may suggest, as one of our discussion leaders explained, that McCain may be more successful at governing, should he be elected, than his competitor.
We learned that on Martha's Vineyard, and perhaps in other Democrat-heavy communities elsewhere, there is a substantial group of voters who were Hillary Clinton enthusiasts, and remain so. They are unhappy that their champion lost the nomination, unhappy at the press for falling in love with Obama and out of love with Ms. Clinton, and unhappy that their hope for the first woman president have been occluded by the success of a young man, who may become the history-making first black man to hold the highest office. Will this unhappiness survive Obama's efforts to draw them into his camp?
We also learned, from Ms. Liasson and Mr. Wallace, that their bosses do not tell them what to say, or to ask, or who to speak with. And, Ms. Liasson said that NPR has made it an explicit goal to balance the coverage between Obama and McCain.
Is any of this new to you? Surprising? Probably not. Interested voters, such as those at the first two Times discussions, synthesize what they hear and read, and they develop a sense of the true, current status of the contest. If an Obama operative had been in the audience at the Community Center to hear Mr. Wallace or Ms. Liasson, he would have left concerned that in this typical, unmistakably Democrat crowd there were currents of indecision lurking, unfavorable to his candidate. An intemperately hopeful McCain operative would have left undeceived. His candidate's road to victory obviously tends steeply uphill. But he might be pleased to see that there are opportunities remaining to exploit. For their part, voters left with their sense of the contest confirmed by two journalists intimate with its every twist and turn.