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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
WL: Tell me about ABC's digital
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
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.