Interview: David Corn

David Corn is a "Watergate baby" who thanks Bob Woodward for getting him interested in journalism.

David Corn is a "Watergate baby" who thanks Bob Woodward for getting him interested in journalism.

A veteran of the entire canon of liberal print outlets, Corn has been with lefty stalwart The Nation since 1987. He spoke to PRWeek about media, politics, and the DC establishment.

PRWeek: Have you seen the role of The Nation change in your time there?
David Corn:
In a big sense, no, I haven't. Fortunately, the mainstream media don't always do as good a job as they should, leaving space for the rest of us to work, do good journalism, and get paid for it. During the Bush years, the circulation of The Nation has basically doubled, and now we're the largest political weekly on either the left or the right.

PRWeek: You wrote a book called The Lies of George W. Bush. Do you feel the Bush White House has been qualitatively different from past administrations in how it communicates?
Corn: I think every administration tries to get its message out, and tries to diminish the bad news and hype the good news. It's fundamental in politics and in government.

I think the Bush administration has perhaps pushed this envelope further in several different ways. To begin with, the things that it's talking about - one might say spinning or being disingenuous about - are much bigger. I also think its whole message operation is far more, to be nice about it, disciplined than those in the past.
[The administration] has pioneered this great device, which has him standing in front of the buzzword of the day: "Growth and opportunity, growth and opportunity." And [it makes sure he sticks] to that message over and over again, even though to the ears of reporters who hear this repeatedly, it sounds juvenile.

But they do, and I think Bush, unlike Bill Clinton, is not one to go out there and start talking at length about policy and complex matters in a free-associative manner. He has a script, and he sticks to it pretty well. And that will include not answering questions directly, and instead trying to direct questions towards responses that he's already prepared to give. So you add all this stuff up, and it does create a qualitative difference from the past.

PRWeek: Wouldn't you think with all the new media outlets it would be harder to fool the public?
Corn:
One would hope so. There's far more watchdogging going on. There's also far more ranting and raving going on. The good journalism or the good blogging is easily drowned out by the screaming and shouting in virtual space.

You do still see that the information culture is driven by the mainstream media - and I do not use that in a pejorative fashion. I think it's still largely shaped by that. And the others, the bloggers or the smaller media outlets such as The Nation, will have more of an opportunity now than ever to elbow their way into the conversation.

My overall critique of the "official media," so to speak, isn't that it's too left, as the right says, or too right, as a lot of people on the left say. Rather, I think it's too deferential to power and to the official agenda of Washington, and it covers things too often in a "He said, she said" way.

And that if a Democrat is attacking the president for saying something that is not completely accurate, it often likes to cover the story as 'Democrats attack the president,' rather than doing a story 'The president is wrong when he says this.' One Washington Post reporter told me recently that [Editor] Len Downie doesn't see it as his job to get into arguments with the president, institutionally.

So they're very cautious about putting things in the paper that take issue with what the president says. And I think that while it's a worthwhile endeavor to convey to public what...any government official is indeed saying, I think the higher role, or at least a side purpose of journalism that's equally important, is to evaluate what they say.

By that I don't mean to just give an opinion about what they're saying; by that I mean, if the president says something, tell the public whether or not -- to the degree to which you can -- it's true. There's some things he says, like 'I think we're going to win the war in Iraq,' that you can't evaluate. But if he says, 'Things are going well in Tal Afar,' and then you send five people there to report whether it's true or not, and give that as much prominence as what he's saying.

PRWeek: Any predictions for 2008, politically?
Corn:
The only prediction I have is that, between now and then, three things will happen that are unforeseen that will change any prediction I make now. I don't make predictions. The obvious wisdom is, the two questions are: Can McCain get the nomination? And can Hillary Clinton not get her nomination? Those are the two questions that will decide what happens in '08. But I do believe that this election still will be a post-9-11 election, and that most Americans will be voting for a Commander in Chief more than a president.

Name: David Corn

Outlet: The Nation

Title: Washington editor

Preferred contact method: Call The Nation, (202) 546-2239

Web sites: www.thenation.com; www.davidcorn.com

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