BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The first Democratic primaries of the presidential race are still more than six months away, but already there's a standout -- at least in the media. According to a search of the Nexis database over the past three weeks, more stories mentioned Howard Dean than any of the other Democratic candidates. So-- what's all the buzz about? Are the media simply following the money? Since April Dean has raised more cash than any other Democrat in the race -- or is it that Dean has tapped a passionate vein in the electorate? He did score an overwhelming victory in the recent straw poll by the political web site MoveOn.org. Writer William Powers wrote about the media's sudden interest in Howard Dean in this week's National Journal and joins me to discuss it. Bill, welcome back to OTM.
WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: First of all, judging from the general tone of the recent coverage, the reaction to Dean's campaign among many journalists has been one of surprise. After all this was a guy whose name recognition last fall fell below the category of "Other" on some polls. But even then you wrote very presciently that there were several reasons why nobody should write Dean off yet.
WILLIAM POWERS: Yes, I said that in November mainly because I know him a little better than most journalists do. We've been doing a TV show together on Canadian TV, that also runs on PBS, for years. I just feel that he's one of these fellows who one, has figured out what works with the media; he's figured out this sort of authenticity that John McCain had -- how to be in a way self-consciously un-selfconscious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And in the months since November that's played out. But as prescient as your November piece was, you never anticipated that money raising would put him in the limelight.
WILLIAM POWERS: No, I absolutely didn't. In fact I thought, back when I wrote that in November, that the media attention I figured he'd eventually get would be enough. But in fact what it took was we've just seen in the last few weeks -- it took basically 7 million dollars. I mean that's the amount he raised in the last quarter when candidates had to report their fundraising. He raised a lot of it the last minute through the internet. And finally, now that he's shown he can raise money, he's really taken seriously. He's gone to a whole new level and it's, it's shown me how much we in the media really buy into this notion that fundraising is what matters most with a presidential candidate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But Bill doesn't this all fall into the category of it's-so-crazy-it-just-might-work? I mean Dean got it all wrong! You're supposed to get the media first and then get the money! He got the money first and side-stepped the media pundits all together!
WILLIAM POWERS: Although, Brooke, if you look back at the coverage of him, there's always been a l-- a little strain playing of very sympathetic coverage and interest in Dean. I mean there was always this intrigue about this doctor from Vermont which is this very iconoclastic state -- you never know what you're going to get from Vermont and so forth. He's got a - an unusual story that we always tuned into. And now I see what was missing. What was missing was: he wasn't really a player in our eyes -- the media's eyes --until he had the money.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:What about Dean's personal relationship with the press? It, it seems that he doesn't go out of his way to cozy up to the media, and many have commented on I guess what you'd call his churlishness with journalists. Do you think his tone is a liability with media insiders but a net plus with the electorate at large?
WILLIAM POWERS: I think that's a very good reading of it. He's got this New England reserve. He's not a instantly warm figure that's trying to ingratiate himself with you in a way that John McCain is. But this other side of him, this kind of unvarnished, speak-my-mind, you know, I'll-be-damned-if-I-don't-say-what-I-really-think feeling plays really well on TV. And plays really well with the masses, I think. And that's sort of what's developed this following that he's got.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:A lot has been made of Dean's appearance last month on Meet the Press. One Daily News columnist called it, and I have the quote here, "perhaps the worst performance by a presidential candidate in the history of television." And other reviews were only slightly better. Let me ask you first. You were there identifying when John Edwards tanked on the Sunday "gas bag programs" as they're called --how bad do you think Dean really was?
WILLIAM POWERS: Well it wasn't his strongest moment, for sure, but I also think he wasn't quite in the Edwards category. I mean -- and I don't think he flamed out in that appearance, and interestingly, you know, much of the money he raised in this latest quarter that's made such a big splash came after that appearance on the Russert show. I think Howard Dean had a lot of these people tee'd up to give money to begin with through a lot of this attention he's gotten through MoveOn and some of these other efforts, and when he really pushed it, they were ready to go and many of them probably hadn't even seen that show. I mean this internet fundraising trick he's pulled off is historic in many ways according to what I've read.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you think Salon was right when it referred to Dean as the "presidential candidate from the great state of Blogland."
WILLIAM POWERS:[LAUGHS] In some ways. In some ways. Although Dean himself, you know, is not super plugged in to that world. It's not as if he came out of that world. It just seems as though those people in that world have taken to him, and he's clearly gone mainstream as a result of that extra push.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:People always way that the internet represents a democratizing force in American discourse, so I guess the question is: will the internet enable candidates to sidestep the mainstream media and reach the people more directly than in previous elections when candidates have tried to do that and failed?
WILLIAM POWERS: It may. I mean what I find interesting, Brooke, and a little bit disheartening is that you know the internet's been around for a while now and it sort of didn't matter until it became a money question -- until Dean figured out how to raise cash through this medium was it finally given its legitimacy and I, I wrote this week that it's just a little bit surprising that that's what it took. It's as if it's -- you know - it's a new medium, but same-old, same-old -- what matters ultimate is the bottom line.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill, thank you very much.
WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: William Powers is a writer for the National Journal and he spoke to us from member station WCAI on Cape Cod.