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AP News Veteran Walter Mears Leads OLLI Politics Class, Sees Some Old Patterns

Pulitzer Prize winner will offer class at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute again during spring term

Walter Mears-edited.jpg
Former AP reporter Walter Mears teaches a class on election campaigns.

Walter Mears says it’s a good time to be leading an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke (OLLI) class on Campaign 2016, with outsider candidates stirring excitement and controversy. Mears, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Associated Press political reporter, will offer the class again during the spring term, which will take the lively Bishop’s House discussions toward convention time.

Mears joined the AP in 1956 and went on to report on presidential elections from 1960 to 2000 and national conventions until 2008. He and his wife retired to Chapel Hill after coming to like the Triangle area when their daughters lived here. “I enjoy OLLI because it is a group of people who are very interested and well-versed in what we are talking about,” he says. It’s more of a discussion than a class.” He begins each Monday morning class by sharing his own 700-word-or-so essay on the state of the campaign as a springboard for conversation.

Mears says he began his class this week by focusing on previous “stop someone movements,” including the effort of the GOP’s Eastern establishment to stop Barry Goldwater in 1964. The final attempt was an effort to challenge Goldwater behind Gov. William Scranton of Pennsylvania. It flopped. Mears says Scranton wrote at the time that the Republicans were fighting for their souls, which sounds familiar looking at the 2016 campaign. Scranton’s last-minute candidacy “went nowhere,” Mears recalls. “They didn’t even vote on Scranton.” Mears shares more eyewitness accounts in his 2003 book, “Deadlines Past: Forty Years of Presidential Campaigning: A Reporter's Story.”

Q: So where do things stand now in your view?

Mears: “Trump’s lead is surprising to me, but not yet conclusive. North Carolina’s Primary will be a factor, but the real tests will be in Ohio and Florida on the same day, March 15. After that we will know whether it boils down to Trump and Ted Cruz. Of course, as we discussed in class, if it wasn’t for Trump, there would be a stop Ted Cruz movement, because the party establishment hates his guts.”

Q: How did it come to this?

Mears: “One reason it is unfolding this way is that the Republicans structured it so they could come to a quick decision and have a nominee to rally around early in the season. It’s not working out very well for the party leaders who designed it all.”

Q: What do you think of the new, young breed of political reporter?

Mears: “In my time the premier job was traveling with and tracking the candidates, getting to know them and becoming an expert on them. The use of rookies, even interns, is really a product of television, which started sending out people to travel with the candidates who were not established reporters. So that much of it has changed. It’s very expensive to travel with the candidate. Covering a campaign is a very costly exercise. The networks fell back on the newcomers to save money and some of them turned out to be very good. But in my day it was where you ended up, not where you started out.

“The whole business has changed drastically. I think the high-tech ways of communicating are one key to why Trump is where he is.  When I was active, there was no such thing as a tweet or a Facebook post or another vehicle to get the story out. … We would do a running story each day if it was warranted. You’d update it as the day went on.”

Q: You wore many hats at the AP. What was your favorite job?

Mears: “The reporting work was what I preferred and enjoyed the most.”

Q: Are spot news stories still important when many readers get advance notice on the Web?

Mears: “Increasingly, readers and viewers don’t really care about the basic facts. They want commentary. But if you don’t have the unadorned facts you have no basis to make a judgment. Often today the judgments come first and the facts later.” 

Q: Are we getting the journalism that our democracy needs? 

Mears: “You can always make it better. But I think the information that the AP and other solid outlets are delivering is there, it’s available. The problem is that you can write the best story in the world and if no one reads it, what difference does it make?  And as I say, the attention spans have decreased to fit the size of the tweet. And it takes some time to read an 800-word explanation of where a candidate stands on a particularly difficult issue. I think too many of us don’t take the time to find out the facts and accept as the truth something that someone tells them. They accept opinion as truth.” 

Q: What do readers really want? Serious, comparative information on the candidates’ positions or horse-race stories? 

Mears: “I heard the argument against horse-race stories when I first started covering politics in 1960. My answer is that there’s nothing wrong with covering the race. I’m sorry it got called ‘horse race’ because they’re not horses, they’re people. ‘Horse race’ is a demeaning phrase for what is a choice between people. But I always thought that my best work was done when I used the competitive nature of the race, which is interesting to people -- if you see someone after returns start coming in, they’re not going to say where is Trump on the 401 visas. They’ll say who’s ahead and who’s behind. That’s what grabs people’s attention. I always regarded that as a perfectly respectable way to cover the story, get their attention and use that vehicle to explain where these people were coming from and what they would do with the votes they were trying to get.” 

Q: What do you miss most about not being in the thick of it? 

Mears: “I’m not so upset about missing this one, because it is so incomprehensible. But I enjoyed just the action of it. Every day was a new and different story, even though they were saying the same things. The audiences were different. The surroundings were different. The imperatives for the candidate each day were different. And it was all reinvented every morning. It doesn’t look that way from our distance now because what you’re seeing is the same old, same old. As with the debates, for example, you have to figure out what they said is new. … Certainly, Trump is the attention grabber and that works especially well with television.” 

Q: Do Trump speeches and remarks remind you of an earlier era in American politics? 

Mears: “If you want to go back to another time when someone matched Trump in simple answers – ‘I’ll fix this for you’ -- you have to go all the way back to Huey Long. The Roosevelt people were concerned about Long running for president back in 1936. He was assassinated before he got there, but he had much of the same approach that Trump does. You know, don’t ask a lot of questions. I’ll make every man a king. And that’s Donald Trump.” 

Q: Some have asked why the news media covers the outrageous things Trump says. 

Mears: “It’s always a problem in deciding what’s newsworthy and what’s not. But it’s a problem without an answer, because if you start saying someone is not responsible and I won’t cover it, then you set yourself up as a censor, and that’s worse.” 

Q: Does TV have a financial stake in the Trump phenomenon? 

Mears: “There’s no doubt that controversy and chaos makes for a good story. But I’ve never known a reporter who weighed the circulation impact of a story and said I’ll write this because it’s controversial and will sell more papers. It doesn’t work that way. … You are so far removed from that sphere that it’s not a factor. Now, it’s less so in television and far less so when you come to these proliferating television cable debates. The more noise, the more the next one draws viewers.” 

Q: Does the system seem flawed? 

Mears: “I don’t think it’s a bad system. This time particularly we have bad candidates. You can’t force a politician to answer a question. You can ask the perfect question and the most adroit of the politicians -- even less adroit politicians -- simply evade it and answer with what they want to say instead of being responsive to the question. That is not going to change. As I’ve often said (to the OLLI group), reporters do not have subpoena powers.” 

Q: What’s been the impact of the media’s fact-checking efforts? 

(Mears says he visited AP offices in Washington recently and talked with the lead editor on the fact-check desk.) “More often than not the facts that he checks are not facts and his story points that out. But he says it doesn’t have the same impact it did in earlier campaigns. The candidates don’t worry about it as much as they did. I think the reason has to be that people are not paying as much attention to it as they once did.” 

“I still think print news is the best place to look for information that is going to stand up. … On cable television you can be absolutely wrong and it washes off. No one pays any attention and they go on to the next story. No one corrects the record. No one even looks at the record. I know I sound like a grumpy old man, which I am.” 

Q: Have you seen any innovative coverage approaches? 

Mears: “There are only so many ways you can cover a political campaign and I think they’ve all been tried and tested. Everyone is always looking for a new way to do it, but I don’t think there is one. I mean, essentially in our system you have people with ideas. They present their ideas and present themselves to the public and say, please choose me. It’s that simple. I can’t devise a new way to accomplish that. I wish there was a new way to impart to the voters how important it is to know where people are coming from and know what they really can and cannot do. I mean, there’s not a person running for president who hasn’t said, elect me president and I will do this. It’s really elect me and ‘I’ll try to get X’ done. But presidents, fortunately, don’t have the power to simply decree something. 

“If you’re looking for a man on horseback, then Trump is your guy, and he can say anything he wants. ‘I’ll get it done, I’ll do it.  I’ll create more jobs. I’ll do this and I’ll do that.’ It’s fiction, but it plays.” 

Q: The media has been criticized for not vetting Trump enough. 

Mears: “The media didn’t vet him closely at the beginning because like most of my colleagues we thought he was a pre-season wonder, that there wasn’t any point in writing a lot of in-depth articles about Trump because he wasn’t going to be there. And it turned out that we were all wrong. And now might well be the nominee. And so, increasingly over the last month you’ve seen more and more investigative reporting about Trump’s behavior over the years.  For example, there’s Trump University. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for folks who lost $35,000 to Trump University. If they were dumb enough to send him $35,000 to listen to someone sell real estate, they probably had too much money to begin with. … Still, I can’t believe no one’s liable for behavior like that. … There’s a long record of Trump activities that are not very savory.” 

“But the scrutiny increases the closer a person gets to becoming the nominee or the president. … It’s not a media cabal. That’s the way it always works. As someone becomes more powerful their behavior is more carefully scrutinized.” 

Q: What do you make of Trump’s frequent criticisms of the press? He’s vowed to “open up” libel laws if elected, making suing the media easier. 

Mears: “Well, that’s standard among the right wing. When I was covering Barry Goldwater in 1964, we jokingly had badges made up that said ‘Eastern Liberal Press.’ And the few of us who came from the West coast had badges that said ‘Western Tory Press.’ The whole thing about the liberal press attacking Goldwater was very much part of the mix in those day. But I remember when it was all over. Barry, (meeting) with a few of us who had covered him the most, said, ‘I know a lot of you don’t agree with me on a lot of issues, but you’ve been fair to me and I appreciate it.’ But that was not the view of his supporters.” 

“Trump likes to sue people. There hasn’t been a lawsuit he doesn’t like. There ought to be a Lawyers for Trump organization. … If you don’t like the message, denounce the messenger.  That’s how it has always worked and always will, I guess.” 

Q: What issue or topics have been underreported, in your view? 

Mears: “Well, I think the investigative work on Trump has been underreported for the reason I mentioned earlier. The assumption was that he was a phenomenon and not a real major player. I think the realities of the immigration dispute were reported but not in the way that has gotten the attention they should have. You know, the only amnesty program in relatively recent times was Ronald Reagan’s. It’s not amnesty to say that the 11 million people who live here can eventually have a pathway to citizenship and legality. But to the Trump and Cruz people that’s amnesty. No, it’s not. … I don’t know how you cover it better than it is covered. The Reagan program was widely overlooked by all these people who say they want to be the next Ronald Reagan.” 

Q: Do campaigns need to be this long? 

Mears: “There’s a constant argument about whether the campaign is too long. What no one has figured out is how to make it shorter. And we say, ‘Well, the Brits do it in 90 days,’ but they don’t make a four-year decision. They make a decision on a parliament that can be overturned at almost any time.  And you do need time to look at these people. I think it would be better if the Supreme Court had not upended all the campaign finance rules and made it possible for non-players to pour money in anonymously and try to change the course of the campaign. I would like to see very strict campaign rules with very strict limits and a reporting requirement. But it’s not going to happen because the people affected don’t want it and they’re the people in charge. …”


The interview has been edited for length and clarity.