The Public Eye Chat With…Jeff Greenfield

(John P. Filo/CBS)
It's Thursday, and that means it's time for the Public Eye Chat. This week's subject is CBS News Senior Political Correspondent Jeff Greenfield.

Brian Montopoli: Is there any political candidate that you think the press is treating particularly well? Are there any that are getting a bum rap?

Jeff Greenfield: That's a really good question, but you need to re-ask it every three months. Because candidates often get one kind of treatment in one period, and a whole different kind of treatment in another period. What usually happens is, particularly with a new fresh face – Barack Obama is the obvious – there is a kind of "gee wiz, look at this, isn't this amazing." And then what sets in, particularly as that candidate rises in the public opinion polls, or in visibility, there is a "wait a minute, who is this guy."

Now, candidates who have been treated particularly unfairly – what does happen is if you are a long shot candidate, the first wave of questions is, "what the heck is he or she doing in this race? Why don't you just go away?" And my feeling is such a candidate has a fairly limited amount of time to say, "Wait, no, I'm going to show you why I'm here. I've got more support than you realize."

On the other hand, I think there are some candidates who come into the race, and just from my particular perspective, outside of an ego trip or to jack up lecture fees, I can't figure out what the hell they're doing there. So I guess I'm part of that.

Brian Montopoli: Do you want to name names?

Jeff Greenfield: It's very difficult for me to understand – well, I'll go into the past. Gary Bauer. Alan Keyes. Certainly Mike Gravel. I don't know how a guy who lost his Senate seat in Alaska in 1980 and suddenly decides he wants to be President is included in the presidential debate. And I do think you could take half the Republican field and say, "Look, you don't belong here."

The Democratic field is trickier, because some of the long shots have been 25 years in the United States Senate, and it's hard to say about them they shouldn't be there. By the way, this always happens. It happened to Orrin Hatch in 2000, it happened to Alan Cranston, Fritz Hollings, all these people who had been in the Senate for a long time and are consequential political figures, once they get in the presidential race it's like, "what are they doing here?"

Brian Montopoli: What's your take on the argument that the media are politically biased? If not politically, what biases are there?

Jeff Greenfield: Most members of the so-called mainstream media undoubtedly, in the voting booth, vote Democratic. There's no way out of that, you can't ignore it. There are certain cultural, personal reasons – when I say personal I mean reasons of personality. Reasons of background. Why you go into journalism in the first place. You tend to have attitudes that tend to mark you more as a Democrat than a Republican. You tend to be more secular, you tend to be more skeptical, you tend to be disrespectful of authority. And those things tend – tend – to push to the left of the spectrum.

This is also, by the way, possibly getting less true as we get into the younger generation. The generation raised with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan are really getting to the point where they are coming into the profession. And I think you're going to see, and have already seen, a more complicated mix.

But in my view the danger of bias does not lie in political coverage. I mean, ask Al Gore and John Kerry if they were the beneficiary of a poodle press. They were treated very critically – appropriately. I do think when you get into the area of culture, that the press tends to be so lopsided in one direction or the other and you have to be careful. I think coverage of issues like abortion, religion, sex education – it can be tough for the press because so few of the press, relatively few, are deep seated, observant religious people.

Now there are some. More than people might believe. But I think that's an area where the press has to be careful -- be aware that it may not understand the world the way other people do. And they need to bring in other points of view about this. I was very conscious of this when I covered the Southern Baptist Convention 20-something years ago. You can come in with one attitude – here I am a New Yorker, I'm essentially secular – but these people are not backwoods ignorant folk. They are fully functioning in the modern world. They have a religious faith that you need to understand and, I would suggest also, respect.

That one I think is probably true. As far as political coverage, I'm sorry, I don't buy it.

Brian Montopoli: What mistakes would you counsel a journalist covering the 2008 campaign to avoid?

Jeff Greenfield: One above all: Stop rushing. It's the spring of 2007. Stop taking these polls seriously. Stop assuming that because there's a particular political terrain developing now it's going to be this way by the time people actually get to vote. I do think that, by and large, political journalists are like kids in the back seat of a car pulling out of the driveway on a family vacation screaming, "Are we there yet?" We're not there yet. Let this thing happen. Let voters actually meet these candidates. Let's see where the country is six months from now, or eight months from now, when somebody actually goes to the polls…

Let's just have a sense of perspective about this, and not go, "Oh my god, Obama's up! No, no, no, Hillary's up! No, wait, Edwards is leading in Iowa! Edwards is losing to McCain in Michigan!" It's insane. It's largely irrelevant to what's going to happen because what's going to happen is dependant on stuff we can't know.

We can't see – I can't see the future. If I knew what was going to happen in six months, I'd have the Mega Millions ticket in my pocket, and we would not be here, because I'd be somewhere on my private island, having a grape peeled for me. It doesn't work that way.