BF: Yes, and I include even Jon Stewart and Colbert in this. The negativism, it hurts liberals, it hurts Democrats. The more government is discredited, the harder it is to get things done. And the media, by constantly harping on the negative and ignoring anything positive, plays a very conservative role, substantively.
JZ: But isn’t part of that just because the media is expected to be adversarial?
BF: Who expects it to be adversarial? Where did you read that? Did you read that in the First Amendment? Where did you read that the media is expected to be adversarial? It should be skeptical, why adversarial? Adversarial means you’re the enemy. Seriously, where does that come from?
JZ: Okay, maybe skeptical is the better word.
BF: But that’s a very different word. You reflect the attitude: adversarial. And there is nothing in any theory that I have ever seen that says when you report events that you’re supposed to [think]: I’m the adversary, so that means I want to defeat them, I want to undermine them, I want to discredit them. Why is that the media’s role? But you’ve accurately stated it and I think it’s a great mistake.
JZ: Do you think I just showed my hand there?
BF: No, I don’t think you showed your hand personally. I think you reflected the Weltzschmerz.
JZ: But you know the old aphorism: Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. I think that’s more what I was trying to get at.
BF: When have you comforted the afflicted? I don’t see that in the media. I don’t see reporting that comforts low-income people or the environment. I think it’s negative about everybody.
Secondly, I say people should be objective. I’ll give you the best quote. Bob Kaiser, one of the best journalists of my generation, once said, “I wish young journalists today would be as skeptical of bad news as they are of good news.” If they hear something good, they want to rebut it. If they hear something bad, they want to print it or broadcast it.
JZ: But that’s sensationalism: The bad news is the stuff that gets the headlines.
BF: That’s because you choose to give it the headlines.
JZ: When you got here, were the people covering the Hill back then—
BF: They were much more neutral, they in some ways recognized the value of politics. It wasn’t always negative.
JZ: Does that impact the way members operate?
BF: Sure. People are response mechanisms. People understand you’ll get more news for being negative than positive. It affects the way people act in hearings.
JZ: You go to these hearings and there’s always grandstanding.
BF: That’s because you guys give play for it.
JZ: Did the grandstanding not used to be as bad?
BF: Not nearly as bad. One thing is people in the media would ignore it. What happens is the people who do the grandstanding are very often the least influential people here. I think the public now has much less chance of judging who’s an effective member of Congress and who isn’t because that grandstanding crap dominates the media.
JZ: People talk about it stemming from C-Span and Gingrich speaking to the empty chamber.
BF: That helped it some. But C-Span’s ratings aren’t that high. What’s magnified it much more than C-Span is the Internet. The fact that everything now, every moment, is on the air.
JZ: Do you feel like you have to be more on guard now?
JZ: But it doesn’t seem like you have a problem necessarily not speaking your mind.
BF: No, but there are different ways to say things.
JZ: You’re always referred to as an institutionalist, and it seems like it’s hard to be an institutionalist when the institution is as partisan and as polarized as it is now.
BF: Yes. But in 2003, I became the senior Democrat on this committee, and I happened to be on a trip to Cape Verde, a place where a lot of people in my district are from. And I brought with me Caro’s third volume on Lyndon Johnson. I’ve read two books in my life that I read as manuals. One was Caro on Lyndon Johnson as minority leader.
JZ: How was that a manual?
BF: Senator Johnson was the minority leader first, and he had 46 or 47 Democrats. I had when I became the minority leader of the committee 30-some-odd. It was the importance of focusing on those members, providing individual attention. It was essentially establishing a relationship in which you gave them more than you got, that you used whatever authority you had to accommodate them whenever they wanted you to, so that you built up with them a strong vested interest in a good relationship with you.