Thursday, November 11, 2004
REPORTERS HAVE THOUSANDS of tricks for avoiding discussion of policy issues in campaign coverage, some more clever than others. The majority of them are obvious and are of the sort that jump out at the public: the constant focus on the People-magazine angles about the candidates' looks, their relationships with their wives (how often do they touch in public?), the musical instruments they play, the hobbies they pursue at their respective Viceroy retreats, etc.
Unfortunately, we're not yet at the stage where campaigns can be conducted without any mention of policy issues. We're headed in that direction -- I'm guessing it's about three elections off, when the Rock decides to make his run against incumbent Tom Hanks -- but we're not quite there yet. This puts both candidates and the press in a bind. They're still forced to give at least superficial lip service to the ostensible intellectual purpose of this exercise, but they have to do it in a way that makes it sound like they're not doing it. Fortunately, there are plenty of media innovations to help them out here, and one of the best is the Tumulter-sault.
Named after Karen Tumulty, who pioneered and perfected its use, the Tumulter-sault is a neat little literary device through which reporters refer to "details on the issues" without ever elaborating upon those actual details. The typical way the writer uses this one is to just slip it in, offhand-like, in between the more important details: "Candidate X, who boasts an impressive record on environmental issues, spent the weekend snowmobiling in Jackson Hole with a pair of one-armed Marine veterans..."
Tumulty has a corollary use of the technique that not only obliquely refers to the existence of complex policy positions without explaining them, but simultaneously berates the candidates for even bringing them up. Here's an example from a piece she wrote about the selection of John Edwards as running mate ("The Gleam Team," July 19). In this one, she highlights Kerry's unfortunate tendency to talk about his policies in polysyllabic detail:
"When he finished, Kerry couldn't resist jumping in with a mini-seminar on trade policy that included references to the fine print of the antidumping and antisurge laws. But at least Kerry answered the question."
The Tumulter-sault is an important innovation because it paves the way for a future in which discussion of "the issues" can be replaced by the actual words, "the issues." With this kind of help from the press, we may soon reach a point at which the candidate who uses the word "environment" more becomes the environmental candidate and the candidate who uses the word "security" more becomes the security candidate. We're not quite there. But thanks to certain reporters, we're well on our way.