BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [CLIP FROM MSNBC SHOW PLAYS]
MAN: For-- question of the day: Late night punchline -- Has Howard Dean become a joke? Want to know what you think. Send us an email to question at MSNBC.com - you can vote on line, and you can see the result...
BOB GARFIELD:If there's any lesson we take away from Iowa, it's that the media love a winner and love to hate a loser, and according to National Journal media critic Bill Powers, the theatrical coverage of the rise and fall of candidates follows the same predictable stages as celebrity tales of triumph over adversity. He calls it "the Hollywood/Washington paradigm" and says it was at work during the caucus coverage.
BILL POWERS: This is the classic downfall of the star. This happens with Hollywood stars too, where they're risen up to this sort of level of perfection, and then something happens. In the case of Hollywood stars, it would be often in their personal lives or, or it would be a flop, a movie flop. In the case of these politicians it's of course a result at the polls. So this happened obviously with Dean. We had this long run-up of adulatory coverage and -- of course, you know, there were people asking questions along the way too, and exceptions, but the general tenor of it was "This is the man." You know, "This guy's on fire." And the perfect result, once that reaches to a certain level, is at the last minute for there to be a kind of a plot reversal, as there is in any good screenplay, and there's this incredible drama, and we even had that wonderful added bonus of the strange Dean "howl" which added to the theatre [LAUGHTER] and, and served our purposes beautifully.
BOB GARFIELD:Yes, the strange Dean "howl." [LAUGHTER] More on that later, by the way. Well, let me ask you this -- it's very easy to kind of pull back a little and look at the media's behavior and ridicule it for being predictable or cliched or whatever, but is this process that you're describing necessarily some sort of evil in the way the press covers things?
BILL POWERS: No, and I don't mean to suggest that. I think it's a very human process. It think it reflects who we are as people and how we come at the world. I do think that the one element of it that is troubling is that the media -the folks who are paid to sort of step back from it all and ask questions about the process tend to be as caught up in it and in the moment and in this tiny fr-- day by day frame as any typical person coming in would be. You would hope that these folks have experience and training and so forth, would be asking the kinds of questions more often that I think need to be asked, which is, you know, if we see this person hot right now are they going to be necessarily hot six months from now. Some people do that. But I think the general tenor of the coverage is this breathless what's happening today is the reality and please pay attention to it, and also the notion that we need to pay this much attention to it. I mean I -- the play that these primaries are given I really question.
BOB GARFIELD:Well the phenomenon you've just described would explain why John Kerry, who was given up for dead by a lot of the media as recently as seven days ago was the de facto Democratic response to the president's State of the Union address. He was on all three major networks from some remote location in New Hampshire where he got to deliver what amounted to his stump speech.
BILL POWERS: And in a way, you know, Kerry is right out of Central Casting for this purpose, because we in the media have been contending with Dean all this time, who's not a Washington figure -somebody who doesn't fit into any particular category, whereas Kerry is somebody that we sort of feel we know -- he's sort of the classic "senator type," and so to have him swoop in there just before the State of the Union and then be the guy who comes on afterwards, it was really perfect. It was as if our own paradigm had fulfilled itself.
BOB GARFIELD:Are there any other examples, Bill, of what we saw in the post caususes coverage that is evidence that these patterns really exist?
BILL POWERS: Oh, absolutely. I mean I'm looking at the front page right now of one of Washington's fine newspapers. The headline is: Kerry Surges Past Dean in Poll. And we have a huge picture of John Kerry -- yes, kissing a baby. [LAUGHTER] I mean it is these archetypal -- it's there -I'm looking at it - it's the Washington Times. It is these archetypal patterns that we come back to again and again, and they are basically plot elements. It has a Kabuki quality to it sometimes --very ritualistic, but it's what we've got.
BOB GARFIELD:I want to talk about the Hollywood comparison you made, because it seems to me that one of the candidates very much fills that bill, and that's as you predicted lo those 18 months ago -- John Edwards. He pulled a total John Travolta. Tell me about that.
BILL POWERS: Travolta had this wonderful rise in the '70s -Saturday Night Fever, and he was this fabulous movie star who'd come out of television, of course. And then he had this incredible flop - a movie called Moment to Moment that I believe he did with Lily Tomlin - and it really knocked him out of the park for quite a while - wasn't taken seriously. I believe he had a hard time getting roles and so forth. And then years later Quentin Tarantino brought him back, and there was this fabulous comeback of Travolta, and I see Edwards doing that over and over again in the political realm in, in much the same way.
BOB GARFIELD: So what was John Edwards' Moment to Moment?
BILL POWERS:John Edwards' Moment to Moment was, initially, when he first sort of came on to the radar screen as a presidential possibility -- was his appearance on the Tim Russert Show. It would have been two years ago, now, actually, going way back. And he was, after all our hopes had been raised, and we'd fallen in love with this wonderful new face who we thought we live in the White House one day and so forth -- we, the media, that is -- he appears on Tim Russert's show which is this real kind of rite of passage you have to go through, and he flopped -- in the view of the media establishment, he put in a horrible performance - seemed completely unprepared, couldn't answer various tough questions. And that was it. It seemed, as with John Travolta in the Moment to Moment period, it seemed as if he had no future in this business. But of course now we know he did.
BOB GARFIELD:So let's just say that the Iowa caucuses and -where he came a strong second to John Kerry -are his Pulp Fiction. But then that leaves open the possibility that there's some Scientologist flick in his immediate future --maybe in New Hampshire.
BILL POWERS: Absolutely. I forget the name of that movie that was the latest Travolta fall, [LAUGHTER] but-- Bob I want to say that since he came in second, he -- from the point of view of the Edwards camp -- I think is in this wonderful position where he can still portray himself as on the rise -- because he wasn't number one. John Kerry's the one who is now set up for the fall, as we all know.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Bill. Well, as always, thanks very much.
BILL POWERS: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Bill Powers covers media for the National Journal.