Nicholas Johnson Interview
Exchange with Ben Kieffer
Iowa Public Radio
WSUI-AM 910, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa
September 2, 2008
"Former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson draws on a half-century in government and politics. Conversation with Ben Kieffer covers Johnson's new book, Are We There Yet?, as well as current politics."
BK: And this is the Exchange from Iowa Public Radio News, I’m Ben Kieffer. What experience is most relevant in a future president? Do new technologies threaten or strengthen our democracy? Should political contributions be protected as “speech”?
These are a few of the questions we will be discussing this hour.
Our guest is native Iowan, and former Federal Communications Commission Commissioner, Nicholas Johnson. In the 1960’s and ‘70’s he served under three Presidents in Washington, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter, before returning to Iowa in 1980. He is best known for his controversial term as a dissenting FCC commissioner from 1966 to 1973 and for his book, How to Talk Back To Your Television. In 1971, in fact, he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. In 1974, he ran for Congress from Iowa’s Third District. Since returning to Iowa in 1980 he’s been on the faculty of the University of Iowa College of Law. His teaching emphasis is on communications and Internet law, and his new book is titled, Are We There Yet? Reflections on Politics in America. Nicholas Johnson joins me in the studio this morning. Good morning.
Nicholas Johnson (NJ): Good morning, Ben.
BK: We’d like to get your views this hour on what you think is wrong with our political system, and then find out from you your views on how you think it might be improved. Let’s make sure for those who don’t know Nicholas Johnson -- haven’t heard him speak in the many years you’ve been around this state -- people know where you’re coming from. How would you describe your party affiliation?
NJ: Well, I’m kind of like Mike Huckabee, on the other side of the fence. He was asked whether he was truly a conservative, and he assured the questioner, “Oh, I’m a conservative all right, I’m just not angry about it."
All my presidential appointments have come from, Presidents who were Democrats. When I ran for Congress, before that for U.S. Senate briefly, I ran as a Democrat. When I’ve been precinct captain, or chair of the Johnson County Democratic Convention, I’ve been a Democrat.
But particularly with the blogging, I’m open to meeting and hearing from, when they’ve been here this past year, I met with Newt Gingrich, I met with Carl Rove, I met with Mike Huckabee. I wrote a very positive blog entry about Mike Huckabee, even though I disagree with him on virtually every single issue. But I think he’s been very decent in a variety of ways. When Bush first proposed “No Child Left Behind” -- which subsequently became sort of a disaster -- but the initial idea, I wrote a favorable op-ed column in the Press-Citizen.
So I like to believe that I try to be fair and interested in whatever anybody has to say. I think many people who read the blog because of my opposition to using government money, taxpayers’ money, and putting it on to the bottom line of for-profit corporations assume I must be a Libertarian. So I suppose there’s a little bit of that in there too.
BK: And your work is not without criticism for the Democratic party.
NJ: Yeah, I’m kind of fed up with both parties, if you want to know the truth. And we may get to that later, in terms of the money issue, their service of the very largest corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
BK: We’ll talk about that certainly later in the hour as well.
Let’s start with your book title, Are We There Yet? Where or what is the “there”? Where is our destination? What are you getting at in this book?
NJ: Well, as I begin the first page, the overview, surely anyone who has ever taken young children on a cross country trip has had to answer that question a great many times before ever getting there. It was also a question many political activists were asking themselves as they traveled the long road along the Presidential Primary of 2007 and 2008. But it’s a question that can also be asked about America’s two-centuries long journey along the road from the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and the Bill of Rights to the day that we can honestly proclaim that the promise of those documents has been realized. So it's "are we there yet" in a number of senses.
BK: My feeling is that your answer to that is “no, we’re not there yet,” and we’ll find out in what ways we’re not there yet.
NJ: Well, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti once wrote, “I’m still waiting for someone to really discover America.”
Late last week, the McCain campaign surprised everyone with its election of Alaska’s governor, Sarah Palin, to be John McCain’s running mate. Her experience has been put in the spotlight. You write about experience in this book. What experience is most relevant for a future president? How should we perceive the spin from both camps? Because the Republicans and the Democrats are both maintaining their candidates have the needed experience. What is your framework for looking at that word?
NJ: Well, let me begin by making, I think, a very important point, which is that I think someone can have virtually no experience whatsoever and still end up being qualified to be president based on their record in office. And I think others can have the kind of experience that I would call for and think relevant to the Presidency and end up being a total disaster.
From my perspective, having been around the White House a bit, I think there are a number of things that could be helpful to a president, that I describe as a breadth of experience. First of all, experience in administering a very large institution, which the United States Government is. That could be experience with a federal cabinet level department, a state government as governor, a large military branch, a major university. There are a lot of places where you can get that kind of administrative experience.
BK: You left out U.S. senator as one of those areas.
NJ: Well, I leave that out because the other area of experience that I think is relevant, is what I call of breadth of experience, and that would include legislative experience.
It creates both the rapport with the individuals the President needs to work with, and also a substantive understanding of what they are doing.
I would include within those groups, the city, county, and state governments that are impacted by the federal government; the federal executive branch; the legislative branch, which would include the Senate; the judicial branch; the administrative branch; but also international organizations -- United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, embassies -- and lots of major constituent groups, but among them trade unions, on the one hand, and the Wall Street financial community on the other.
And I would say, since you asked about senators, that in terms of the breadth of experience, a United States senator who is primarily, or has only been, a United States senator does not have that breadth of experience. They have what I call “stove pipe” experience. The thirty years they have been there may not be thirty years experience. It may be one year’s experience thirty times.
So that by that standard, in an odd sort of way, Governor Palin, who’s served as a mayor -- of a small town, admittedly -- and as governor -- for, admittedly, a short term -- at least has had experience with city and state government.
Barack Obama, has had about twelve years of legislative experience, McCain, twenty-five, I’m not sure that makes McCain twice as qualified to be president as Barack Obama. Indeed Barack Obama has had experience with a state legislature. So he has some perspective on what the impact of federal government is on states.
BK: Would it count to his experience working in Chicago for the community. That experience is in what category?
NJ: Well, I think it’s what I call "life experience." I think there are all kinds of things.
I think that the boards of public interest organization, boards of directors that Hillary Clinton served on, is of that nature. That's helpful.
His work as community organizer is very helpful for another reason that we may or may not get into.
But the senators -- Clinton, Obama, now Bidden as vice president, McCain -- none of them has served as a mayor or governor, none has headed a cabinet level department, none has helped administer the Pentagon or the CIA. None has worked for international organizations, been an ambassador to the United Nations; none has been an ambassador to a foreign country; none has headed delegations negotiating with foreign governments over trade agreements, or release of hostages, or treaties.
Now compare that with the experience that the President’s father had as ambassador to China, head of the CIA, former member of the House.
Compare it with the experience of Governor Bill Richardson: fifteen years legislative experience in the U.S. House; an understanding of state government from two terms as governor; and of federal government, from the Department of Energy where he was secretary of a major federal department with an enormous budget; the significant administrative experience as governor and a cabinet secretary; and the international perspective of a former Ambassador to the United Nations, along with international accomplishments beyond that including successful hostage negotiations with Saddam Hussein and others, that inspired some five Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
So that’s the kind of breadth of experience that I think might be relevant. I repeat, I think somebody, that all the Senators I just mentioned, are perfectly qualified to be President.
But I think it’s silly, or was silly, for Senator Clinton to try to base a case for voting for her on the grounds that she had more experience than the others.
BK: We have to take a short break.
My guest this hour on The Exchange, former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson. He's been teaching at the University of Iowa College of Law for many years now. His reflections on politics in America are captured in a new book titled, Are We There Yet?
And what are your reflections on politics in America? We'd like to find out, include your questions and comments. What should we be looking for in a future president? How do you define "relevant experience" for the job of president?
1-866-780-9100, 1-866-780-9100, or firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll be back in just a moment.
Here's a curious, interesting fact about Nicholas Johnson: He was once on the cover of Rolling Stone, 1971.
[BK goes to song with lyrics:
Wanna see my picture on the cover
Wanna buy five copies for my mother
Wanna see my smilin' face
On the cover of the Rolling Stone"]
BK: My guest this hour is Nicholas Johnson, an Iowa native, also best known for his controversial term as a dissenting FCC commissioner from 1966 to 1973. He served under three presidents in Washington before returning to Iowa in 1980, and teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law. His new book is titled, Are We There Yet? Reflections on Politics in America.
We'd like to have your reflections as well. What do you hear that you agree with, or disagree with? 1-866-780-9100, 1-866-780-9100, or email us at email@example.com.
BK: Nicholas Johnson, one of the big themes in this book is money, how it drives this country’s politics. What do you see as the major problems money and politics create when they come together like this?
NJ: Well, the problem they create is that unless the major parties are going to give their major contributors a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, it’s only decent for them to respond to these campaign contributions.
BK: So there is a quid pro quo undoubtedly with these?
NJ: Absolutely, and one of the chapters in the book is a piece I did some years ago for the Des Moines Register. It’s one of the few where I’ve included the footnotes that exist on the Web page but not, of course on the op-ed column itself, in which I document that as a rough rule of thumb, once you are contributing in the $100,000 to $1,000,000 category, the payback is something between 1000-to-1 and 2000-to-1.
BK: How did you measure that?
NJ: Well, I started off with the milk produces, interestingly enough, who wanted to have an increase in the support price of milk. The Department of Agriculture explained, politely, that they viewed themselves as advocates for the farmers, but they really just could not justify an additional increase in the support price of milk.
Not long after, Richard Nixon received $200,000 in cash from the milk producers, and shortly after that the support price of milk was increased by $400 million to the American consumer. And I thought, my golly, that’s kind of odd.
And I didn’t major in math, but it didn’t take me long to divide 400 million by 200 thousand and conclude, by golly, those folks got back two thousand dollars for every dollar they gave. You can’t do anything close to that well on the stock exchange.
So I started looking at other industries, and laid out a lot of what was going on at that time. What are we talking about? What kind of paybacks do you get in what categories?
Well, there are tax breaks, defense contracts and other kinds of contracts, tariffs, price supports, like the milk case, subsidies, bailouts -- we see those by the billions of dollars for various industries and companies. There are earmarks like the $50 million for the Iowa Rainforest. There are the creation of specifications that have to be met when only your company can meet those specifications.
BK: But just because it’s for a certain company, than it benefits a certain company, doesn’t mean it’s not also in the public interest, right?
NJ: Well, wrong.
One of the things you’re talking about is failure to enforce the antitrust laws or a willingness to sit back and let prices go up.
Why do we pay what we pay for pharmaceutical products? Why is our government precluded by our Congress from negotiating with these companies over price? Why are we forbidden to import from other countries as other countries are permitted to?
BK: Canada. Canada for instance.
NJ: Yeah, and what about oil prices?
The point is that’s why the headline on the piece was “You pay $4 or you pay $4,000." If you’re going to give them a 1,000-to-1 payback, it means you as a taxpayer or a consumer are going to pay that extra $3,996 because your car costs more, your gas costs more, your pharmaceutical products cost more, your food in the grocery store costs more.
That's why I say "all campaigns are publicly financed." It’s either you pay as a taxpayer through a check-off system -- the money that Barack Obama refused to accept so he could raise more privately -- or you’re going to pay in the prices you pay in the market place and the taxes you pay that get transferred over to wealthy corporations.
BK: So for you, the fact that the Obama campaign will not be taking public money, and John McCain will, has no significance.
NJ: Oh, no, it does have significance. I would far prefer to have public financing of campaigns in a straightforward way where I pay $4 towards the presidential campaign instead of having to pay $4,000.
BK: In public financing of campaigns -- we have a couple minutes before we have to take another break -- how do we fix it, what would be a better system that would also be politically feasible to implement?
NJ: Well, for starters, since we’re on radio, and radio and television are licensed to serve the public interest, one of the long standing proposals that’s never been adopted is that one of the requirements would be that free time would be made available to candidates for campaigns. Because as I discovered when running for senate and congress here from Iowa, you take care of the radio and television costs of campaigning and you have eliminated the problem of campaign finance, because it represents as much as 90 percent of what people are raising this money for.
BK: But how do you decide who is eligible for that amount of time and how much time? You would have to pick only major candidates?
NJ: No, now you’re getting into administrative details that I’m not sure you want to pursue during the course of an hour long discussion. But there are answers to all those questions, As for who would get it, it would be similar to who now gets equal opportunity under the equal opportunity provision of the Communications Act.
BK: Okay, let’s go to our first caller. If you’d like to get in your comment or question about reflections on politics in America. What have you been bothered by lately that you'd like to see fixed in our system? 1-866-780-9100. What do you hear from Nicholas Johnson that you agree with or disagree with? 1-866-780-9100.
George joins us from Cedar Falls. Good morning, George.
George: Yes, I always find it ironic when a minority and/or woman politician takes the conservative position on something, when you think about not too long ago conservative ideology would have kept them out of the game. Now, I’m a liberal Democrat so I’m a little prejudiced, and I’m a white male so I don’t know women or minorities' thinking, but just from an outside observer it seems a little ironic that they take a conservative position attacking the ideology that got them into the game in the first place.
BK: Okay, George, very good.
Are We There Yet? Is the title of your book. We have presidential candidates Barack Obama and a female vice presidential candidate, or presumed nominee. We have to wait a couple days for that candidate’s title, or the nominee title. Is that a step along the road of Are We There Yet? Progress there, of course.
NJ: Oh, I think, of course we have to say so. Particularly what Hillary Clinton accomplished with her campaign. It was, after all, relatively close. So we’re going to be making history this year regardless of which party.
BK: Any further comments on what George had to say?
NJ: Well, one thing to comment is that when you are taking big money from major industries, lobbyists, corporations, and the top one-tenth of one percent of the wealthiest, you’re going to have to trim your sails a little bit under that kind of a system.
ABC has had a report on what they call “The Money Trail.” They’re continuing it this week with the Republicans. They had it last week with the Democratic convention.
Here’s one of the things they reported. One of the country’s leading lobbyists, Steve Farber, was chosen by Howard Dean as chief fundraiser of the Denver Host Committee. This founding partner of Brownstein, Farber and Hyatt, one of the most prominent and active lobbying operations in Washington, persuaded some 141 corporations to contribute more than $50 million towards the Democratic convention. And if you'll give me a little time later, I want to describe the incredible contrast between how the wealthy folks in attendance and the regular delegates were treated.
BK: Okay, we’re back in just a few minutes to talk with Nicholas Johnson, former FCC Commissioner, native Iowan, has served under three Presidents, has a new book out. It's titled Are We There Yet? Reflections on Politics in America. Please do join our conversation; 1-866-780-9100 is our toll free number, 1-866-780-9100.
When we come back we’ll address that, what Nicholas Johnson was speaking of. Also, do new technologies threaten or strengthen our democracy? That question put to Nicholas Johnson as well. We'll be back with more of The Exchange on Iowa Public Radio in just a few minutes.
BK: And we're back with The Exchange from Iowa Public Radio News.
My guest is native Iowan and former FCC Commission commissioner, Nicholas Johnson. He served under three presidents in the 60s and 70s. Since 1980 he's been teaching at the University of Iowa College of Law. Known for his term as FCC commissioner, but also for his book, How to Talk Back to Your Television Set. He appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1971. Maybe we'll get to talk about the circumstances of that toward the end of the program. His new book, Are We There Yet? Reflections on Politics in America.
And there are a number of callers waiting to talk to you Nicholas Johnson. 1-866-780-9100.
Let's pick up with the point that we left off with. You wanted to make a point about an observation you made at the Democratic National Convention, and how that ties in with the role that money plays in our politics.
NJ: Right. ABC has been doing a series on the Democratic Convention last week, the Republican’s this week, that is a very insightful portrayal of how Washington really works; much more so than what’s going on the floor of the convention.
Special privileges for those who give $100,000 and more included a Denver performing arts penthouse show with Tony Bennett and James Taylor, preferred booking in top hotels. And I quote three sentences from their report one evening:
“Last night the wealthy donors in the skybox watched as Senator Hillary Clinton praised Barack Obama for knowing 'the government must be about "we the people" not we the favored few.'” ABC continues, "the favored few in the Democratic Finance Committee skybox were treated to an open bar and food in silver chafing dishes. The delegates, outside the closed curtain of the skybox, stood in line for $7 hotdogs and were not permitted to bring food to their seats at the Pepsi center.”
It nicely dramatizes, I think, who’s really running politics in this country, which means who’s really running the government, when you see these senators and congressmen sitting down with major lobbyists.
BK: So both parties are in the same boat when it comes to keeping the status quo in terms of money’s role in maintaining power.
NJ: That’s the way I see it. I mean somebody can argue with me and I’ll listen.
It was George Wallace who said, “There’s not a dime's worth of difference between the parties” back in 1968 when he was running.
I think that’s wrong. Obviously there’s a dimes worth of difference. And for starters, they’re both really big tent parties and so they’ve got a variety of points of view within each party.
But when it comes to the interests of major corporations, major industries, and the top one-tenth of one percent of the wealthiest people in the country, I don’t see much difference between the two major parties. And I think we will not see it on the ABC series last week and this week.
BK: So, quickly before we go to calls, the way to change that would have to take a grass roots movement because your elected politicians are all benefiting from this.
NJ: I find many things attractive about all the candidates and all the parties, but one of the things I’ve found most attractive about Barack Obama was one of the first things he and I talked about over a year ago, and that is his background in community organizing.
Because I think a part of what I see as a potential with him is precisely that. it is using the nearly one-and-a-half million contributors, tens of millions of supporters, eighty thousand people in the Denver stadium, etc., all across the country. Keeping in touch with them; that’s part of what the text messaging, to tie into your technology question, was about.
He can use those folks to respond to the anecdote often told about Franklin Roosevelt. When inveighed upon by someone with a program for legislation that he supported he would say, “I agree with you absolutely. Now you go out there and make me do it” -- I think meaning that when the people will lead, their leaders will follow. And what Barack Obama is in a position to do is to help organize, to become in effect the community organizer in chief for the nation, and build the kind of grassroots base of support to bring about the kinds of changes that he’s been talking about, changes that no President can do by himself or herself.
BK: Let’s go to our phones. Several people want to talk to you. 1-866-780-9100. Bob is on the line from Bettendorf to talk to Nicholas Johnson. Good morning, Bob.
Bob: Hello. Our founding fathers, more or less believed our politicians would be doing favors for their friends. You read about this in the Federalist papers. And, therefore, one of the ideas was to limit the damage by having a limited government and having a more or less, laissez-faire economy. What do you think about that concept?
NJ: Well, I think that’s an interesting concept, and I have a colleague who believes in divided government. He doesn’t care so much which party’s in the White House and which controls the Congress, he just wants to make sure it’s two different parties. So, yeah, we have a great deal of provisions in the Constitution that are designed to assure that government’s not going to get very much done because there’s always somebody to check it one way or another.
BK: Okay, thank you Bob from Bettendorf. There’s an email. Larry in Cedar Falls says, "George W. Bush had the 'experience' to which Professor Johnson has referred, but his presidency by most measures has been a failure. I think intellectual depth and breadth are more relevant criteria by which to assess candidates for public office including the presidency," writes Larry in Cedar Falls.
NJ: Well, I’ve already said that I thought there’s a great deal to be said for Larry’s point.
Not only did George Bush have experience, at least as governor, but Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had a wide variety of experience, including having served before as Secretary of Defense, having served before as Chief of Staff for a president in the White House, having served in Congress, etc.
So I made the point early on, that the mere existence of experience doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get a qualified and proficient president. And the absence of experience doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get a good one. And I would agree with Larry that we’re looking for, or I am, for what I would call the judicial mind, somebody who’s capable of holding things in balance rather than knee-jerk ideological responses. Somebody who’s basically honest, somebody who likes people, you know, there are a lot of qualities, obviously intelligence, knowledge, something close to the president we had in the television series “West Wing,” which I assume a lot of people would have voted for, are things that make a lot of difference, ethics, etc.
BK: Let’s go to Iowa City. Shirley is in Iowa City, joining our conversation. Good morning.
Shirley: Good morning. My husband likes to say that "we have the best government that money can buy." And I think that it’s pretty evident that that doesn’t make or actually buy us a very great government sometimes. And my question is, first of all, is it possible to sever those money ties to big business? Obviously, corporations have a great deal to say about decisions that are made in Washington and ancillary to that I would say, I think part of it has been set up because of Supreme Court judgments, sometime in the late nineteenth century, that allowed corporations to be viewed as individual entities.
NJ: Yes, I would agree with you about that.
George Burns in “Oh, God” had the line that one thing he had messed up was the avocado because the seed was too big. I think we may have done the same thing with that clerk's interpretation of the Supreme Court decision back in the Nineteenth Century.
I hate to use a word like "fascism" because it’s so emotionally loaded. It sounds like you’re drawing conclusions from it. But the definition is the intertwining of corporate interests with government interests where you have a government-corporate symbiotic institution, essentially, that is running things. And I think that’s very close to what we have, and that doesn’t mean we have the other awful qualities of a fascist regime. I think I’ll stop that sentence there, I was going to go on and say something else. But that is a characteristic of what we have.
BK: Thank you, Shirley, calling from Iowa City.
Andy in Iowa City has an email question.
"What can be done to encourage and develop the growth of third parties in this country. The Green Party, for example, offers policy alternatives which speak to me more than those of either of the two major parties." However, in a close race, Andy points out, there is the dilemma of whether to vote for the Greens might mean a win for the Republicans.
What are your reflections on the role of third parties, Nicholas Johnson?
NJ: Well, for starters, I think, virtually all of the progressive social legislation we’ve had in this country has come as a result of third party pressure: social security, child labor laws, minimum wages, maximum hours, safety in the work place, at least the proposals for meaningful universal single-payer healthcare, starting actually before Truman, but most especially with Harry Truman.
So I think third parties have a very important role to play, and that we’re really kind of shooting ourselves in the foot as a nation as the result of giving all the power to make decisions to the Democrats and Republicans, for example with the presidential debates. An awful lot turns on who you put in those presidential debates. And if you keep a candidate out, that candidate probably is not going to get a lot of votes. They’re not going to have the credibility that comes from that.
And that’s one of the issues I address in the book, Are We There Yet? What we could do; all the ways in which third parties are prevented. And actually there are many proposals for reforming the system which would actually benefit the major parties too, but they are just too stubborn on this thing to give anything up. So it’s a tough struggle.
As for what the voters should do, what a late friend of mine, Molly Ivans, once proposed, is if you’re in a state that’s close, vote Democratic. But if you’re in a state that’s either clearly going to go for the Republican or Democrat, that gives you a lot more freedom to vote for a third party and at least register a protest vote.
BK: You write also about "spin" in your book. So much of what we hear is spin from the campaigns. How is a typical voter, busy with a job during the day, cannot read reams of political commentary and see between the lines. How is a typical voter to understand “spin” and recognize spin that may not be very close to the truth actually, be a selective truth?
NJ: I think that since the media is taking money from the campaigns to put these commercials on the air, I think they also have the responsibility, and indeed some exercise it, to do a kind of truth squad evaluation of the commercials.
And I’ve raised, recently, a question of whether we need to revisit New York Times v. Sullivan, which gives the media a kind of a base on balls when they’re involved in repeating information that’s essentially inflammatory if the person who would be the plaintiff is also a public official. Because I think we’ve got some awful stuff out there, and yesterday, or today, Barack Obama said with regard to the daughter of the Governor of Alaska, that anything having to do with the families really ought to be off the table. Nobody in his campaign had anything to do with the stories that were being reported, and that if he ever found out that they did, they would be fired, and so forth. I think we need to have more of that kind of response from the candidates.
BK: Your blog, for those who want to follow your writings, we want to mention is FromDC2Iowa.blogsbot.com -- or probably Googling "Nicholas Johnson" will get you there, too.
NJ: Or the Web page, www.nicholasjohnson.org. I chose "org" instead of "com" because I do virtually nothing that’s com so I decided I should be an org. But there’s a link off of the Web page to the blog, an index for the blog, and lots of other stuff.
BK: I mentioned that not just to plug your Web site to get people in contact with you, but also to point out that you are very connected with new technologies, using them to spread your ideas to let people know what you’re thinking. Do new technologies threaten or strengthen our democracy?
NJ: Both. We’re discussing that actually this afternoon in Law of Electronic Media at the law school.
I think that one of the things that happens -- and Friedman put it in his book, The World is Flat -- is that so many people are interconnected via the internet that information can spread so fast -- gossip of all kinds, mean spirited stuff, deliberate lies -- that clearly is not helping.
On the other hand, there’s a wonderful kind of relationship growing up within the media. You mentioned my book from the ‘70’s, How to Talk Back to Your Television Set,. What made the title cute was that it was preposterous, you couldn’t possibly talk back to your television set. It was a one way, from one to the many, communication system, compared with the extent now to which, say, local papers here have an online presence that permits readers of the newspaper story to put their comment about the story on the newspapers' Web page.
BK: For all to see.
NJ: For all to see.
They have forums, they have local citizens who are not employees who have their own blogs. So that’s a big change in the media. Clearly, Barack Obama would not be where he is -- and he learned a lot from Howard Dean and took it to the next level -- without the kind of Internet communities that the new technologies make possible.
BK: You write also, in this book, that the media misled the public about the Democratic party primary’s significance. That would be a surprise for many to hear; how so?
NJ: I don’t know whether they don’t understand the Iowa caucus system, and the primary system, or whether they just don’t have much respect for the audience and think the audience could never understand it, but they talk about who "won" a primary when there’s proportional distribution of the delegates.
BK: When it’s six percentage points difference then you can’t call that a clear win?
NJ: No. It will be a win in November for whoever gets more than fifty percent of the vote, or whoever gets the most votes, in any given state. They will get all the electoral delegates from that state. That's a win, all right. That's a case where whoever gets the most votes, one can legitimately say of them that they "won" that state. They got everything from that state even though they didn’t get all the votes.
But when you divide up the delegates to a convention proportionately, based on what proportion of the votes you got, I think it’s misleading to suggest that one person "won" and the other person lost. Indeed, with Texas, which the media said Hillary Clinton "won," Obama ended up with more delegates from Texas than Hillary Clinton did. And yet, she was proclaimed to have beaten him in Texas.
BK: Let's jump to one of the other major themes in your book here, too, as we wind up this conversation -- about four minutes left. How is war, terrorism, and fear, as you say, used as a campaign strategy?
NJ: Well, when people are afraid they tend to vote for incumbents, and the question is whether the use of fear is manipulated. There’s a wonderful quote from Goering which I’m probably not going to be able to find, but Hitler’s advisor, who commented something along this line, that
"it works the same in all countries, whether they’re Communist or Fascist or whatever. If you tell the people that they’re being attacked, they will become fearful, and view as disloyal and unpatriotic anybody who doesn’t support you. And it doesn’t make any difference what country, it works the same with all people. You just scare them enough and they’re with you."
BK: But you grant also that the concerns about national security in the age of terrorism is a legitimate concern.
NJ: That’s right. But it can also be utilized in ways that serve political purposes. You’ve seen the movie, “Wag the Dog,” I presume?
NJ: Well, starting a war is a pretty nifty way to get the focus off of other problems.
BK: Let’s go to our last caller. Darrin I think is still in Davenport waiting. Hi, Darrin.
Darrin: Hi, how are you doing?
BK: Very well. We don’t have too much time though, Darrin. Please make it brief.
Darrin: Okay, let me get right into it. I was just thinking along the lines of, Mr. Johnson, about your book, Are We There Yet? in the primary how the media also, to the point where they tried to explain New Hampshire’s primary, about the fact that they had Barack Obama leading by double digits, and then, in fact, when it came down to it he actually lost, had a poor showing. So there the media quickly jumped to it, "that’s the Black vote." Meaning that the white voters would get ready to come and on the exit polls, or the pre-polls, would say “you know what, I’m going to vote for Barack Obama,” but when it actually got down to it, the vote wasn’t there. So therefore, now we all know that that would have been a misleading truth, but it boiled down the general election. Is that still the same problem or have you saw that as just a media bleed-off towards confusion?
NJ: Well, I would have to say with regard to Iowa I don’t think Barack Obama won with the African-American vote.
And one of the ways in which the media can adversely impact a general election is when the reports of the closed polls on the east coast are put out over the air, and they are listened to by people in California who may decide "there’s no point in voting."
But also, what you indicated, predicting the outcome of a primary may cause people to stay away.
And there comes the music.
BK: Darrin, I’m sorry, and thank you for your call. Not much time to talk about your very interesting point. Thank you, though, Darrin from Davenport for joining our conversation.
Nicholas Johnson we’ll have to have you back soon, we want to have you back soon, to discuss your new book.
You wanted to have a quick point? We’ve got just a few seconds.
NJ: It’s available at Prairie Lights in Iowa City, and from Amazon.com.
BK: Thank you very much, Nicholas Johnson. The Exchange produced today by Jeff Schmidt, our producer assistant Scott Granton, and theme music composed and performed by Dan Knight. The Exchange is a production of Iowa Public Radio. I'm Ben Kieffer. Thanks to the callers. Thanks to Nicholas Johnson for all of the discussion this hour. This is The Exchange on Iowa Public Radio.
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