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Journalism Superstars Discuss Covering The Controversial Election

This story was written by Tiffany Gibson, Sidelines

The Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence welcomed guest speakers and nationally-recognized journalists yesterday to describe and share their experiences in covering political campaigns with Middle Tennessee State Universitystudents.

The event, entitled "History in the Making: Press Coverage of the Presidential Campaign," took place in the Keathley University Center and was open to the public.

Walter Mears, national political reporter, Washington bureau chief and executive editor and columnist with The Associated Press, spoke about his career experiences in covering 11 presidential campaigns.

"It's different from covering state elections and state politics because a presidential campaign has to deal with so many issues, interests and regions," Mears said. "It's a matter of assembling the parts of a puzzle to put together a campaign."

Mears began his political coverage career during the 1960 election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

He said that standards for reporters have changed since then, because candidates aren't as "chatty" with reporters as Kennedy once was.

As for the upcoming election, Mears said that it's hard to cover a campaign in which everything is being shaped by the shouting of people on both sides of the spectrum.

"One thing I think people need before Election Day is an honest, straightforward, dispassionate account of whom these people are and what they propose to do," Mears said.

With Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin refusing to speak to the press, Mears said that times have changed, because he use to talk to politicians just to get to know them better.

"Palin is not unique, she is just particularly sequestered because they are afraid she'll talk to Katie Couric again, and she won't be able to remember what it is that she reads, if anything," Mears said.

Furthermore, Mears said that he believes chosing Palin was a tactical move to liven up John McCain's campaign.

"I don't even think John McCain fully believes that she is fully qualified," he said.

Following a brief intermission after Mear's speech, Beverly Keel, director of the Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence, led a panel featuring Mears, Bill Kovach, founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The New York Times, John Mashek, national political correspondent in Washington for the Boston Globe and national political editor of U.S. News and World Report, and John Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean and founder of the First Amendment Center.

The panel began by examining the second presidential debate at Belmont. Keel asked the panelists who, in their opinion, won the debate.

Mashek said that both candidates gave their campaigns "one-liners," but McCain didn't come out "blazing" as expected.

Kovach said that Americans were the winners.

"The questions were a hell of a lot better than the answers," Kovach said. "Neither [candidate] confronted the issues that are needed for our economy."

Kovach said that the projects that were created by both candidates took place last year, during a completely different financial time.

"There's not going to be enough money left to fund these projects they are talking about," Kovach said.

Seigenthaler said that he thought that for McCain to be successful in the campaign in the debate, he had to separate himself from the George W. Bush administration.

"Obama, to be successful, had to nail McCain to the Bush cross," Seigenthaler said.

Another topic brought up in the panel was the age difference between bama, 47, and McCain, 72.

Mashek compared both candidates to Kennedy and Nixon in the sense that when people watched the first televised debate, they saw Kennedy as a laid-back, young man and Nixon as an older choice.

Despite the age difference, Kovach said he couldn't believe that during the Belmont debate both candidates got away with not talking about the most important issue.

"If you watched the debate last night [Tuesday], there were many times where Tom Brokaw could have asked 'how do you know that?'" Kovach said.

Kovach said the main advice he can give journalism students is to never lose their curiosity for information.

"The most important question a journalist can ask a public figure when they say anything about an issue, is to find out how they support that statement," Kovach said.

Following the panel, Keel sat down with Candy Crowley, CNN's award-winning senior political correspondent to talk about her observations of the presidential campaign thus far.

Crowley said that both candidates are complete opposites, in that "McCain has been fighting to get out of the system, while Obama has been fighting to get into the system."

In addition to identifying their differences, Crowley discussed both candidates' flaws. She said that Obama can be testy at times and that McCain is very vigorous, to the point where there is no telling what he will say.

As a journalist, Crowley said that everyone has biases, and that in order to report on things, it is crucial to understand what those are and avoid them.

After Keel finished her question-and-answer forum with Crowley, she opened the floor to students who took the opportunity to ask Crowley about voting fraud, CNN eye reports and the coverage of Sept. 11.

Crowley said that when you cover something for so long like Sept. 11, it's nice sometimes to step back and get a fresh perspective.

For students aspiring to cover future elections, Crowley asks them to get used to working with words and critiquing themselves.

"Also, history [is important because] when you cover something, history matters, and it gives you perspective on what you're looking at," Crowley said.

Dean of the College of Mass Communication Roy Moore said that he was pleased to have such distinguished speakers for this event.

"We won't have another election for four years, so this is really the only opportunity that students who are in the program have as undergraduates to really focus onthe media coverage of an election," Moore said. "It doesn't happen often."