Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
August 28, 2007

Candidate Abuse

Obama-1

Dodd-Daughter

Edwards-Family

(click for full size)

Did you happen to notice Sunday’s front page NYT piece, In 2008 Race, Little Ones Go on the Trail With Daddy ? After the read, the pictures and the video, the one thing I can say for certain now is: this campaign is way too long to do anybody any good.

Basically, I felt forced by this article to wear my clinician’s hat throughout.

I don’t know about you, but I found the words and the images decidedly subversive.  Although the Dodd shot is quite playful, on one hand, the fact his daughter is in mischief mode, launching herself back while covering daddy’s mouth, gives the impression (reinforced by the write-up) that 5 year old Grace has had it up to here with all the talking, and that Daddy need be gagged.

(By the way, the first two shots above were scanned from the print edition.  The Dodd shot is on line, but it’s cropped.  Regarding the Obama image, I can’t remember if it was first on the website then taken down, or it only appeared in the print edition.  Perhaps the exclusion can be explained, however, by the way this triangle, frozen in time, seems so cheaply libidinal.)

Overall, the piece sets up a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t form of judgement over whether a presidential candidate should take the kids out of school and on the road, or leave them behind at home.  It would have seemed more honest if the writer just flat-out claimed that running for President (as a parent of younger children) was a form of child abuse.

But then, leave it to The Times to save its most brutal treatment for Edwards, intimating that having kids living on the road is — at least in his case — likely twice as bad as leaving them in school, like Malia Obama, and then never seeing them.

Let me say up front that fatherhood, under the best of conditions, is not so easy — even if you’re aren’t running for President and your wife doesn’t have terminal cancer.  So the fact there is tension between John and Jack Edwards (remember, Jack is the one who drew the famous piece of stage management from Theresa Heinz Kerry) is nothing I feel I can judge.  And in John’s defense (based mostly on the accompanying video), it seems like Jack, who is a boy and does have a lot of energy and apparently a good bit of frustration about his situation, might very well be a handful.  (I haven’t the faintest idea, by the way, how the family has been treating Elizabeth’s illness.)

What really disgusted me, however, was how the Times reporter used her own personal need (to get the story, and thus, to capture the children’s attention) to interject herself between Edwards and his kids, and then turn right around and exploit that tension for her report.  It literally came out like this:

(T)hey [the Edwards children] treated an interviewer the way politicians surely wish they could at times, refusing at first to remove their iPod earphones for a discussion of life on the trail.

“I don’t want to do this,” Jack protested to his father, John Edwards, the Democratic presidential candidate and former North Carolina senator.

“I don’t care whether you want to do this,” Mr. Edwards replied.

A moment later, Jack hid his face in his hands.

“Mr. Jack, do we need to go in the back and have a conversation?” asked Mr. Edwards, lifting his son’s head.

If the photo and video of the Edwards family feels like fuel for family therapy  — what with John, clearly distracted and a little peeved at Jack, explaining how he keeps the kids with him on the road because he needs it for himself; or, given the description of the kids as friendless (bowling alone or, in Jack’s case, brandishing a toy gun) — I’d say one reason the candidate might be feeling so tense (with Jack taking the opportunity to act, or opt out) is because the family is trapped by New York Times Multimedia as the camera gets deep into the family business.

The backlash is obvious, by the way, when Edwards concludes the video clip by telling Jack that these reporters — although they seem playful and friendly at the back of the bus — are in no way his friends.

So, what about a watch list?

(images: Keith Bedford/NYTimes.  August 2007.  New York Times and nyt.com)

  • PTate in FR

    Good analysis. All three of the pictures seem to me to be inappropriate–something about the Obama one is a little too intimate (does it hint that Obama is just a “boy”?) The Dodd one makes it look like he is strangling his child. The Edwards one is a scene familiar to most families–the children appear to be marginally in control. Edwards’ face is once again contorted. It’s a nice picture of Elizabeth Edwards.
    I am reminded of Justice John Roberts’ out-of-control son when he was named to the Supreme Court, which we discussed here. I imagine that NYTimes reporters, being urban, young, ambitious and hip, don’t have a lot of time for children in their lives. They may hold negative opinions of children (who should be seen, not heard) and this may bias their reporting.
    I can’t understand why anyone thinks this drawn-out campaign season is a good way to select candidates for President. For all the time, money and coverage, will we actually know anything more about the candidates than if we had a focused three month Presidential campaign?

  • Books Alive

    I read the entire article online, and learned about the young children of Republican candidates Brownback and Thompson for the first time. My first thought was to recall Jack Edwards’ “Which one is Cheney?” at the close of a debate in 2004, so I think of him as a seasoned campaigner. In light of Elizabeth Edwards’ health issues, I think that having the children along, with tutors and sitters, is understandable. Having had 15 different addresses during a 23-year marriage, I know that some families have to endure moves around the country and the world. I say, good luck to John and Elizabeth Edwards!
    The Obama image was cropped in the online edition; Michelle was not shown. The accompanying text referred to the State Fair and the ride his daughter insisted on, so that what came across for me was Daddy agreeing to the challenge of his child, then turning it into a humorous anecdote of the day.

  • KingElvis

    A ‘campaign’ is how you conduct war. The permanent campaign reflects the war ethos of the US.
    Permanent War. Permanent Campaign.
    What’s the difference?
    This reflects the ‘damned if you do’ side more. Edwards seems to always come out the worse for the wear with the Times.
    I’m seriously starting to wonder if the NYTimes doesn’t like Edwards politics – almost as much as the FOX fascistos.

  • readytoblowagasket

    The BAG said: What really disgusted me, however, was how the Times reporter used her own personal need (to get the story, and thus, to capture the children’s attention) to interject herself between Edwards and his kids, and then turn right around and exploit that tension for her report.
    This is a total misread. The reporter would have had to make an appointment to interview the Edwards children, and when she arrived at the scheduled time, the kids either got shy or rebellious. It’s not the reporter’s “own personal need”; she has a job to do. She is not “interjecting” herself between Edwards and his kids, she is not “exploiting” that tension for her report; she is trying to do the story assigned by her boss. The parents agreed to the story about children on the campaign trail well in advance, which is why John Edwards suggests to his son that they go in the back and have a conversation about it. That conversation might go something like this: Remember what we discussed about the reporter coming to talk to you and your sister? Remember how you said you were okay about talking to her?
    Why does the reporter focus on the Edwards children? According to the article:
    The Edwards children are the most visible of all the candidates’ . . .
    Why don’t you focus on the pictures? On the photographers’ (rather than the reporter’s) motives? Maybe there is a mismatch here between image and story.
    But I would argue that there is nothing overtly negative in the visual or verbal portrayal of the Edwards family this time. And any reader with young children would be automatically sympathetic to the Edwards family in particular, no matter what the reporter says.

  • RentedMule

    As a parent, what I was struck by was the “normalcy” of all three photographs, all of the parent/child interactions seemed far more natural than the posed staged-ness of the typical smiling family portraits associated with campaign literature.
    Reading the article left me with the impression that it was the reporter, rather than the families that didn’t get it. If any aspect of the story gave me a feeling of abuse it was with the intrusiveness of the reporting into what are the typical, intimate interactions of families with younger children and the attempt to read some larger meaning into a very small narrative.

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    After all the crap about leaving Bush’s daughters alone during their various rampages through the bars of the world, and how inappropriate ist was to mention Cheney’s daughter being a lesbian during the debates, I find this focusing on the Democratic candidates children now pretty reprehensible.

  • Johanna

    The campaign is not too long — we will find out a great deal in this length of time. It’s the selling of candidates as atrractive members of appealing families that is the problem, and one that had its origin in JFK. With his deep connection with Hollywood, he understood the way to subliminally appeal to people through photos and videos, and carefully orchestrated his own. Most candidates are following in his footsteps, with greater or less success. The appeal is not on the level of reasoned thinking about political positions or speculation about the leadership qualities of the candidate. In that way, what Kennedy did corrupted the election process.

  • readytoblowagasket

    donna, re: I find this focusing on the Democratic candidates children now pretty reprehensible.
    Would it be reprehensible if the candidates/parents permitted the news coverage of their children? Chris Dodd (for one example) posted a video on YouTube of his children with Paul Simon on the Dodd family tour bus, which I saw long before this NYT article came out. Isn’t that even more exploitative? Your own children + super-famous singer = publicity for your stupid candidacy?
    But anyway, here we have another example of The BAG’s skewing the discussion in a totally biased direction by saying:
    Basically, I felt forced by this article to wear my clinician’s hat throughout.
    And everybody follows Michael’s lead.
    The abuse of “authority” — claiming unavoidable special status of “clinician” — is what is reprehensible, because it engenders bias in the comment thread. Instead of clarifying our world, its self-referential position manipulates us.
    But then, I personally find any abuse of authority “disgusting.”

  • arty

    Wow, blogger meltdown, more fun than looking at a car wreck. OK, regular type in the middle, itals on the left and bold-faced on the right. Line up, nice straight rows, than follow me. That’s me!
    I’ll tell you how reporters work, where they are when they file stories, and when the clinicians should shut their traps. I’ll tell you when a reporter is just doing their job, and when they’re fawning over a government flack. Because it’s me we’re talking about. Me.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Thanks, arty, you just proved my point.

  • margaret

    Well, as usual, I haven’t read the NYTimes article (how did I miss it?), so the pictures are what I am going to respond to: they all look like the normal chaos of family life, whether one is a politician, or not, in other words, not scripted. So, that is a good thing, because most people with children will relate to how difficult and self-centered even the nicest children can be when they are tired and bored with an activity, especially ones which involve adults. So, NY Times….pictures, okay. The article, I don’t give a damn.

  • The BAG

    “… here we have another example of The BAG’s skewing the discussion in a totally biased direction …”
    Sounds like the tail wagging the dog. Not to flatter myself, but could you imagine one of Josh Marshall’s commenters — regular or not — accusing him of trying to “bias” his comment thread? C’mon, rtbag. It’s a blog (mine, by the way), not an art gallery.
    Also, I have never found readers here to act and function like a Greek chorus. If anything, today more than proves the point.

  • readytoblowagasket

    The BAG, um, Josh Marshall actually is a trained journalist, with pretty impressive credentials and fantastic ethics; you’re not a trained journalist, and sometimes you don’t know what you’re talking about when you talk about journalism.
    Jodi Kantor, the “reporter” of the NYT article you cited, has her own impressive credentials, including working for 4 years as an editor for Slate online. At 27, she was hired to revamp the NYT Arts & Leisure section. Graduated from Columbia, worked for a year for Giuliani, entered Harvard Law School but decided to become a journalist instead. Seems like that worked out for her. Yes, she’s young, a native New Yorker, and I don’t think she has a problem with children since she’s written several articles about them. She supports Barack Obama.
    Interesting person.

  • Johanna

    “trained journalist”? It’s not like being a doctor, lawyer, or accountant. Any sensible, observant person with writing skills can do it. I bet most of the writers at magazines and papers you admire did NOT attend journalism school or even take a single journalistm course. Can’t be said of any doctor, can it?

  • arty

    Uh, I wasn’t talking about the Bag in my post. Maybe trying to be polite and subtle doesn’t work these days.

  • margaret

    Let’s not pile on our dear Dr. Bag, whom I admire tremendously, for his originality of thinking and his deep perception of human behavior. His web site is a great asset in this treacherous political and foreign policy-wrecked time. He studies the relationships between people by studying the posture and physical interaction between people. His posts are presenting us with the dichotomy between what we see and how the media write about what we are seeing. We are “supposed” to look, and, sometimes, read, and comment on what we see. Sometimes, there is more; sometimes, there is less.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Johanna, sorry, I forgot that many people don’t even know what a “trained journalist” is. Here’s more about Josh Marshall if you’re interested.
    If The BAG wants to endorse the validity of the Web as an incubator for citizen-journalists (as he has said on this blog many times), then Jodi Kantor just happens to be his ideal: She got her start online, then moved to the Times where she’s making her mark for a younger, savvier, possibly more cynical, audience. She writes about popular culture and politics.
    I’m mystified by The BAG’s negative read of the article. I didn’t find it “subversive,” “abusive,” “brutal,” invasive, dishonest, self-referential, “exploitative,” or any of the other loaded word choices he used. I do, however, find it weird that The BAG’s post today is thematically identical to this John Edwards blog which was posted yesterday. I’m sure that’s a totally freak coincidence, including the “watch list” reference and the accusation that Jodi Kantor is essentially accusing the Edwardses of “child abuse” by taking their kids on the road.
    Hopefully Kantor isn’t a plagiarist, too.
    arty, I got what you’d intended to say. Sorry that you don’t get what I said. But hey, look: No ital or bold! Lots of quote marks, though.

  • jtfromBC

    –BAGnewsNotes is not a lecture so much as a seminar with all participants contibuting, sharing and deepening their knowledge. (from # 3 About The Site, above)
    I’m enjoying the lively questions, informed critical evaluations and insight by all participants in this seminar, definitely valuable and important for an autodact like myself.

  • Cactus

    Well, c’mon now, and really. Doesn’t the NYT have to do something to counteract the bad press that Giulliani’s kids have given to him? I mean, the logical thing would be to gravitate to where the story IS, i.e., the Giulliani camp where the kids really do hate the campaign and the campaigner. Hmmmmm.

  • Steve

    jt, I totally agree with your comment. Didn’t know what a autodact was, found autodidact in the dictionary. Thanks for the new word, brother autodidact.
    Coffee houses used to be called ‘penny universities’. People would get a cup of coffee – for a penny(dag!) – sit and share ideas. Big things are said to come from these penny universities, including the American Revolution.
    Mmm, a cup of mud & BnN.
    At this point a journalist is nothing more than a verbal prostitute servicing a PR firm.

  • jtfromBC

    Steve, thanks as you may or may not know some autodidacts are not great spellers. (;-) I’ve observed prostitute behavior in a number of professions my favorite associate term is a H**se Pimp for–you can guess the industry

  • margaret

    I think this post should be renamed, Bag Abuse. [Meaning, some serious meanness loaded onto the Bag.]

  • PTate in FR

    readytoblowagasket: “you’re not a trained journalist, and sometimes you don’t know what you’re talking about when you talk about journalism….Jodi Kantor, the “reporter” of the NYT article you cited, has her own impressive credentials”
    “The abuse of “authority” — claiming unavoidable special status of “clinician” — is what is reprehensible, because it engenders bias in the comment thread.”
    Are you arguing that a journalist is above bias and would never ever abuse her authority–the heady privilege that comes with being published in the NYTimes–because she has such awesome credentials???? Isn’t it inconsistent to assert the credentials of a journalist while at the same time refusing to respect to the BAG’s credential as a clinician? He states clearly that he “…felt forced by this article to wear [his] clinician’s hat throughout.” That was more honest than your awesomely credentialed journalist. I think the BAG’s reading is right on; I also found it weirdly skewed against Edwards.
    You give your interpretation above: The journalist is just doing her job, and she is just telling it like she see it, because she is an awesomely credentialled professional.
    My take is that she is biased, and that her article is structured–through her choice of words and her framing–to communicate her unacknowledged bias that taking children on the campaign trail is miserable for the children and exploitative and insensitive of parents. I hypothesis, given her credentials and accomplishments, that she holds the common feminist bias that children are a life-style choice, a waste of time, a drag on important, highly credentialed female careers, and, that if you must have children, then those children are better off if they are taken care of by others, orderly and stable, well-behaved, serious about their school work so they can amount to something and out of sight.
    Normally we analyze pictures, but here I’ll do a textual analysis because that has been coming up in threads recently:
    In her 1800 word article, Jodi Kantor spends 667 words on Edwards family anecdotes (36%) , 564 words on Obama family anecdotes (30%), and 616 words on analysis and anecdotes involving everyone else. (34%) So most of the article is about Edwards, whose children are “the most visible of all the candidates’, pictured on the first frame of their father’s Web site and often seen standing with their parents at the start of events.”
    Her analysis can be summarized as follows: More candidates have small children reflecting a demographic trend. This forces them either to take the children along with them or to endure the heartache of leaving their children behind. She sets up an Edwards-Obama, bad candidate-good candidate comparison: “Edwards and Obama represent poles of the debate” and “they or their spouses sometimes hint of concerns about raising their children in the harsh environment of a presidential race.”
    Throughout the article, she uses language and framing to suggest that Edwards’ children are not happy on the campaign trail, and their parents are irresponsible and exploitative to force them to be there. She does this through her choice of words, anecdotes (“I don’t want to do this,” Jack protested, “I don’t care…” responds his father, “…do we need to go in the back and have conversation?” I propose that she has chosen this anecdote because it allows her to suggest that Edwards is physically threatening his son) and by contrasting the Edwards’ choice with the choice made by the Obamas.
    Her bias against the Edwards is clear when she reports that “To hear the couple talk, it will be an enriching, madcap adventure…” and that “it will fulfill their highest priority: being together.” But–leaping in for the kill–“Traveling together, though, does not always mean being together” and discusses what the Edwards children are missing (not forgetting to point out that their mother has incurable breast cancer, and the Edwards’ live in a 28,000 square foot “pleasure palace.”) Words like “madcap”, “pleasure palace” are intended to led the reader and the frame is the inconsistency between “highest priority” and reality.
    She uses the Obama family’s choices as a mirror to highlight the irresponsibility of the Edwards’. “In contrast, the Obamas have pledged to keep their daughters’ lives in Chicago intact, especially during the school year. “Our kids thrive on stability and routine and consistency,” Mrs. Obama said…“If we talked about pulling them out of school for this, they would be miserable,” We learn that Mrs Obama’s extended family–her mother, brother–are pitching in to help. Stablity, routine, consistency, miserable, mother…these are words that lead the reader.
    She describes the Obama family visit to the Iowa State Fair: “The family’s recent visit to the Iowa State Fair, which was supposed to be a highlight for the girls, looked as uncomfortable up close as it did delightful in pictures. While Mr. Obama grinned and munched with gusto, his daughters looked alternately impassive and spooked by the cameras, reporters and onlookers that pressed in on them. At the petting zoo, no one paid any mind to the baby pigs or goats: Malia and Sasha had become the small, nervous-looking creatures on display….Squeezing out of the exhibit, Mrs. Obama leaned in to a reporter. “This is not quality time,” she said.” Sometimes, reading comprehension is about implicit comparsions in the subtext.
    The clear implication is that being on the campaign trail is uncomfortable for children, the children are impassive and spooked, the children are small, nervous-looking creatures on display. The reader is led to infer that the Edwards children are having the same experience as the Obama children, but their parents–madcap adventure, indeed–are ignoring their needs.
    Anyhow, I appreciate your challenge. I disagree with your reading, but I hope this analysis–sorry it is so long–helps clarify my perspective.
    Interestingly, the photos do a great job of communicating this subtext–the orderly Obamas, the Dodd child with dangerous life-threatening allergies, the restive Edwards children–further evidence that one picture is worth 1000 words.

  • Steve

    Oh yes, all too weel, jt!
    ; )

  • readytoblowagasket

    PTate:
    1) I am not making an argument about journalists vs. psychologists.
    2) Like many many professions (including journalism), psychology has a code of ethics that obligates “clinicians” not to abuse their boundaries of competence. Interpret the code however you like in the context of this extremely subjective forum.
    3) I think the writer was trying to write from the point of view of the kids (in using phrasing like “dragging them from stump speech to stump speech,” etc.). She is not writing from the point of view of the parents, nor is she even focusing much on them. That may have been a mistake on her part, and she may have failed spectacularly to articulate the point of view she intended to articulate. I haven’t given my opinion about whether she succeeded or not, but I have given my point of view that she is not slamming Edwards. About that I am positive.

  • jtfromBC

    Ptate, rtbag et al
    Heraclitus would delight in this ongoing discussion
    “The harmonious structure of the world depends upon opposite tension like that of the bow and the lyre.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heraclitus
    Everybody gets a chance to do some plucking here although some may be using different scales its intriguing music to my ears

Refresh Archives

Random Notes