John Kerry and George W. Bush, the Democrat and Republican who will compete this November for the presidency, both attended similar New England preparatory schools, both graduated from Yale, and both received advanced degrees from prestigious east coast colleges. But, somewhere along the way, they developed dramatically different reading habits.
Where Bush says he does not read newspapers, Kerry says he cannot get enough of them. And that distinction, Kerry suggested when he sat down with this reporter for a rare extended interview on media issues this week, sums up a radically different vision of how a president should gather and process information they must use to make fundamental decisions about the direction of the nation and the world.
"I read four or five papers a day if I can," said Kerry, when asked about his newspaper reading habits. "It depends obviously on where I am and what I'm doing. I always pick up a local paper in the hotel I'm staying at, or two depending on what the city is. And I try to get the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, papers like that. I try to read as much as I can."
Those patterns are similar to most former presidents. Dwight Eisenhower read nine papers daily, Ronald Reagan was such an avid consumer of newspapers that his ex-wife Jane Wyman complained about his print media obsessions, and Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were known to go through stacks of papers each day. But Kerry's penchant for the papers clearly distinguishes him from the current President Bush.
When asked last fall by Fox News anchor Brit Hume how he gets his news, Bush said he asks an aide, "What's in the newspapers worth worrying about?" The president added that, "I glance at the headlines just to kind of (get) a flavor of what's moving. I rarely the stories..."
Instead of gathering information himself, Bush said he prefers to "get briefed by people who probably read the news themselves" and "people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."
Kerry shook his head in disagreement as Bush's comments were recounted to him.
"I can't imagine being president and not reading as much as I can about what people are saying," explained Kerry. "I don't want (information) varnished by staff. I don't want it filtered by staff. I want it the way it is. And I think you get a much better sense of what's going in the country (when you gather information yourself). I think one of the reasons we have some problems today is that we have an administration that's out of touch with the problems of average people. They don't know how people are struggling. They don't know what's happening with health care, employment. They don't know, or they don't care, that's their choice."
As a constant consumer of news, Kerry says he spends a good deal of time thinking about the role of media in a democratic society. And he gets frustrated when television networks fail to live up to the responsibility that should go with a license to use the people's airwaves.
When it was mentioned that many Americans had expressed disappointment with the decision of the nation's broadcast television networks to air only three hours of Democratic convention coverage, Kerry said, "I share the disappointment. We're a democracy, and the strength of our democracy is in the ability of citizens to be informed. If the major media are unwilling to inform -- and simply because there is not a clash or a conflict or something doesn't mean (a convention) is not informative -- I personally think it's a derogation of their responsibility (that goes with using) the broadcast airwaves."
In particular, Kerry said he was upset that the nation's commercial broadcast networks -- including ABC, CBS and NBC -- decided not to air any coverage on the second night of the convention in Boston. That was the night when Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama delivered a much-praised keynote address, Ron Reagan broke ranks with the Republican Party to criticize President Bush's limits on stem-cell research, and Teresa Heinz Kerry spoke about her husband.
"My wife gave a wonderful speech, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, it was a brilliant night," said Kerry. "I think it's very disappointing that the American people, at least the people who watch the networks, missed it. I talked to several of the anchors beforehand but, you know, that's the way they decided. Obviously, I disagreed."
Asked if he thought the decision of the networks to downplay the coverage of the convention sent a signal that told Americans not to take what happened in Boston seriously, Kerry said, "I don't know if its that message or not. I think most Americans are smart enough to understand (that it does matter)."
But Teresa Heinz Kerry, who was seated next to her husband, interrupted him and said, "That is the message, I think. I agree that it hurts."
Concerns about consolidated media, particularly consolidated media that does not see itself as having a responsibility to cover politics seriously and to question those in positions of authority, have been highlighted in recent documentaries such as Robert Greenwald's "Outfoxed," a critique of the conservative bias of Rupert Murdoch and his Fox News programs, and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11." Kerry has not yet seen "Fahrenheit 9-11," but he described its success as "remarkable." And he made it clear that he shares the view of those who believe that media consolidation is a significant issue in contemporary America.
If Kerry is elected president, he will be in a position to influence the media landscape. Encouraged by President Bush and lobbyists for the major networks, a Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission sought last year to ease limits on media consolidation at the local and national levels. Kerry, who notes that he voted in the Senate to maintain the controls against consolidation, says he would set a different course by appointing FCC commissioners who are more sympathetic to diversity of ownership, competition and local control. Several days after he sat down for the interview that is recounted here, Kerry amplified the point when he promised a gathering of minority journalists that, "I will appoint people to the FCC, and I will pursue a policy, that tries to have as diverse and broad an ownership as possible."
Distinguishing himself from President Bush, Kerry says, "I'm against the ongoing push for media consolidation. It's contrary to the stronger interests of the country." Diversity of media ownership and content, the candidate explains, "is critical to who we are as a free people. It's critical to our democracy."