Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Mark Halperin

As Political Director of ABC News, Mark Halperin is responsible for the planning and editorial content of all political news on the network. He is also the founder and editor of The Note which appears daily on ABCNEWS.com. A must-read for political news junkies, The Note started two years ago as an internal staff memo, but was soon being shared with friends outside of ABC. It provides daily news and analysis, with a sassy tone and humor to thousands of readers daily. Washington Life Editor in Chief, Nancy Bagley talked to Mark Halperin about The Note, the media, and politics.

Washington Life: Why do you think The Note has caught on so much with political insiders?

Mark Halperin: It's read by people at the White House and Capitol Hill, in the campaigns and the party committees, by lobbyists, and by a lot of other journalists, but it's [also] got a wider audience. I think people like it because it simultaneously reflects and makes fun of the conventional wisdom in political media and when we do it right, it gives people a sense of what insiders are thinking as the day starts.

WL: For those who haven't read The Note, in what way is it like a blog or a news log?

MH: It's voice I suppose is somewhat like a blog in that it's not very corporate, hierarchical or formal. But, we do not put things up that aren't true, and we source everything carefully, adhering to the standards of ABC News. There are a lot of blogs that don't adhere to any standards whatsoever.

WL: It certainly is fun to read. How many people are working on it. What's the structure? How do you decide what to include?

MH: The Note is something I work on with my colleagues. We have what we like to call a shared sense of tone and attitude. While I edit it and write some of it, it is indeed magically a team effort with people working on it in Washington and New York, so that it doesn't become a burden since we have other jobs at ABC. Reporters really like to see their names in The Note so they often email us. And, as in all journalism, the most important thing is to lead with the lead. We answer the question [that we'd have] if one of us were traveling for a day and hadn't read a single newspaper, or seen anything on TV but called in to ask, “What's going on?”

WL: What do you think the impact of the 24-hour news cycle has been?

MH: No one declares a truce from midnight to seven a.m. Stuff's going on. So professionally, you have to look for ways to maximize your involvement in the news cycle. Personally, you have to find ways to preserve your capacity to sleep, take care of yourself, and maintain your sanity.

WL: How much of The Note is news, content, gossip or analysis?

MH: We try to never use the word gossip or the word rumor, but there are times when there is a reality about what's going on that is not conveyed through a standard format, but rather in a lighter, and perhaps, more satirical way. One thing that got attention was during the time when John Kerry replaced his campaign manager. We wrote a memo from the outgoing campaign manager, Jim Jordan, to the incoming campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, that was based on a lot of reporting. We didn't just make stuff up. But it was not a real memo and we did not talk to either Jim Jordan or Mary Beth Cahill.

WL: But it seemed quite accurate and real.

MH: Thank you. In fact, it was so accurate that a lot of our print reporter friends' bosses demanded to know why they hadn't obtained this memo, and wanted to get a copy to follow-up on the leads. I don't consider that gossip or rumor, but it was a device that allowed us to show a lot of the reality that was going on in the Kerry campaign, which would have been impossible to do in a standard format.

WL: How much of a problem is media consolidation and what percentage of the news today do you think is analytical and investigative reporting versus the he-said, she-said of reporting that seems so pervasive these days?

MH: I would say it is one of the seven major crises going on in American media. We're in a business and we have to make money. But, there are fewer and fewer owners, family owners and corporate owners of the media who believe that part of why they own a news organization is to hold powerful interest accountable to the public interest. The trend has been fewer and fewer as there has been consolidation. So it is a huge problem, because the press is the only entity that has the capacity to be a watchdog over politicians, government, businesses and labor unions. We need to preserve the few organizations that still to do that, and within organizations, the individuals who have the energy, creativity, and expertise to do investigative reporting.

WL: Why have investigative reporting budgets been cut so much?

MH: It is expensive to do serious investigative journalism. Filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and then the willingness to go to court to challenge it if documents are withheld, requires money. Staking out a bad guy for two months requires money.

WL: Since the press is supposed to be a watchdog holding the president accountable to the people, why hasn't the White House press corps demanded that our presidents give a press conference once a week or even once a month for that matter?

MH: Our image has become one of a pampered Washington special interest, not one of a protector of the public interest. So, when reporters ask the president tough questions, or suggest that there should be more press conferences as a matter of accountability, the public has no sympathy for that. They think reporters just want to have more fun and want to parade in front of the cameras. Each of the last two presidents has seen an opening to criticize and stiff-arm the press without any backlash. It is going to take reporters and news organizations asking fewer questions about process and polls and more questions about substance and how the role of government affects people's real lives. Then with respect, we will be able to say “ On the behalf of the public, Mr. President, you should really answer more questions because that is part of your job.”

WL: You said that media consolidation is one of seven major problems this country is facing. What are some of the others?

MH: They're all somewhat related: fewer serious news organizations; a lack of competition; an emphasis on hiring people who can produce product, while also having a sense of journalistic ethics and tactics.

WL: What do you make of the argument of a “liberal media”? Do you think that the Clintons were treated the same as Bushes?

MH: The press has a lot of biases. We're proscandal and pro-establishment bias. We like new things. But in a lot of areas, I think the dominant political media is more favorably disposed towards Democrats.

WL: Then why were they so hard on the Clintons? Many in the mainstream media basically called Clinton a murderer with regard to Vince Foster and millions of tax dollars were spent investigating Whitewater to no avail with countless hours of media coverage.

MH: Clinton was a victim of the media's other bias: our pro-scandal bias. But I think most reporters, not all, tend to support higher taxes and more government, reproductive choice and homosexual rights and they tend to oppose access to guns. If you read newspaper stories about the president's tax cuts, they almost never say, “under supply economics, these tax cuts will stimulate economic growth and will lead ultimately to the reduction of the deficit.” They simply say, “Tax cuts are going to increase the deficit.” And that is counter to the dogma or ideology of the current president, and his administration.

WL: Yes, but then you can look at it the other way around too. When the media talks about tax cuts they rarely talk about externalities, hidden costs or the large subsidies that corporations are given. They don't talk about what people have to give up for that $300 tax cut, the higher hidden costs and hidden taxes, higher health care costs or loss of social security, clean air or water. The press rarely talked about the fact that corporations were getting huge tax cuts, while the CEOs were getting bonus packages worth millions of dollars at the same time they were laying thousands of people off.

MH: The press almost did a worse job than Al Gore in 2000 in explaining the fact that Bush proposed a disproportionate tax cut for the wealthy. It's a horrible failure on our part not to make that clear, but that wasn't about ideology or a secret support for tax cuts for the wealthy. It was incompetence, and it was because Al Gore didn't explain it.

WL: He-said, she-said.

MH: Exactly. Too often, the political press demands that one side criticize the other side before we'll say anything about it. We'll simply wait for them to make the criticism; and we'll simply say what their criticism is rather than say here's what's right. It's a huge failing but it is incumbent in our two-party system for the side that is complaining to complain loudly and at least with a modicum of agility. Al Gore did not do that.

WL: Gore never said he invented the Internet but even today, most people, even democrats believe he said that.

MH: Well, another one of my criticisms is that the press does not hold presidential candidates to the same standards. George Bush said a lot of things that were significantly more seriously wrong, either purposely exaggerated or just a slip of the tongue, than what Al Gore allegedly said about the Internet or his mother-in-law's prescription drugs. So, the press should do a better job of holding people to an equal standard. But if you are a candidate and known for not telling the truth or being ignorant, it is part of the gantlet we make presidential candidates run that you deal with that. If you can't as a presidential candidate convince people through your own efforts that you didn't say that you invented the Internet, you are going to have trouble being an effective president.

WL: Do we really know if a presidential candidate, or a president for that matter, is ignorant?

MH: No one has ever been elected president without subjecting himself to a fair number of interviews and press availability. It's up to the press to ask the right hard questions and then to convey the quality of the answers.

WL: Most Americans still believe that there was a substantial connection between Iraq and al Qaeda before the war, although the evidence has shown otherwise and a lot of people are wondering if the press sold us a bill of goods when it came to the war in Iraq. Do you think the press is partially responsible for leading us or misleading us into this war?

MH: When you have a divided opposition, it makes it harder for the press to demand answers. This White House is very good at timing decisions and announcements and votes in Congress to minimize the scrutiny of the public and the press. That is probably not in the public's interest, [but] it's usually good tactics and strategy for them to get what they want. And every reporter who played any role in covering the run-up to the war and [who] hasn't gone back and scrutinized whether they and their media organization did as much as possible to get the public complete information, should be ashamed. It's not our role to stop a war or criticize the runup to war, but it is our responsibility to give the public all the information they could possibly need, so that they can play a role in any major decisions government makes on their behalf. I don't think anybody could be completely happy with our [the media's] performance. But, even with a wellfunded media organization, it's very hard to hold the government accountable in a run-up to a war.

WL: People on the Left say that they have been screaming and that they don't get the same kind of coverage. For example, the media continues to mislead the public about bills that do the opposite of what their name implies, such as, the “Clear Skies Bill” or the “Healthy Forests Bill”?

MH: Then they're not using their intelligence to get the coverage. This administration is really aggressive and very much aware of the importance of symbolism in public policy. We [the media] are in business to show and tell people what they should hear and what they want to hear. There's no shortage of interest in reporting mislabeling, wrongdoing, false advertising, corruption or errors in government. It's up to the opposition party and the public to demand accountability.

WL: Most Americans don't realize that they actually own the airwaves. This presidential cycle will cost over $400 million with a good portion being used to buy TV advertisements in only a handful of states. Many Americans also think that there is too much money being spent on political campaigns, and that the system corrupts well-intentioned politicians. Do you think it's possible to ever get real campaign finance reform or public financing when the broadcast media would lose millions of dollars from campaign ads?

MH: Not if the public financing pays for the ads.

WL: But it would ultimately reduce the actual amount we spend on campaigns.

MH: Not necessarily but I'm not bothered by money and politics. There's no connection between corporate owners and the press's relative lack of interest in the question of campaign advertising revenue. I covered the issue and I never received a call from my corporate owner saying please stay away from this story.

WL: But have you told the people what they need to know? Because most Americans think that public financing would actually cost them more money.

MH: A majority of Americans are now interested in what some call “Welfare for Politicians.” They're not interested in the public financing of campaigns.

WL: “Welfare for Politicians” implies that public financing is welfare for politicians, which it's not.

MH: The money has to come from somewhere. The problem in campaign finance, is the perception or reality of public officials trading access and decisions for donations and fundraising help. To me, it's up to the press and public interest groups in the opposition to say, Senator X took all this money and here's what he did for it. James Carville proposed the best campaign finance system I've heard of. Which is if you're an incumbent running, you can not raise any money but you get a $400,000 annual salary which has to pay for everything including your health care. So politicians can't have their charity golf tournaments paid for by lobbyists, they can't take speaking fees or take anything of value from anybody. In return, every time their opponent raises money, it is matched 80 percent from the public treasury. [Thus] incumbents aren't raising money.

WL: What if it is an open seat?

MH: Then they can raise all the money they want with disclosure. And if you are in Congress and want to run for the Senate, you have to quit. You can't run as an incumbent. [Candidates running against] selffunders get 120% from public funds every time the rich person wants to spend any money. To me, that gets to the problem.

WL: Tell me about ABC's digital cable channel.

MH: It's called ABC News Now. We started it very quickly because we wanted to do it in conjunction with the conventions, and it has gotten excellent reviews so far. It has been the most exhilarating experience I have had at ABC, because we took all the experience we had as programmers and journalists and figured okay, we'll do it on television 24/7. Our Web site and ABC News Radio is 24/7 so the mentality is just slightly different. Peter Jennings is very enthusiastic about the project and anchored it at the conventions in Boston and New York. So if you have digital TV, you can get it, or if you live in a place where your cable system is carrying it like Washington, New York, and other big cities, you just have to learn which 3 numbers to punch in.

WL: Let's talk election predictions, do you have any?

MH: I don't make too many predictions. If I had to predict, I would say that the election will be close. I predict that if John Kerry wins three of these four states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin or Florida, he'll win; but if he wins two or fewer, he won't win. I predict that Barak Obama (Democratic Senatorial candidate, Illinois) will become the most influential African-American elected official in the history of the country.

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