Walter Mears on Trump, the Press, and the Presidential Campaign

Walter Mears-edited

Walter Mears on how political campaigns are changing.

From an interview at Duke University with retired AP political reporter Walter Mears:

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.”

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: 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: 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.

“Trump likes to sue people. There hasn’t been a lawsuit he doesn’t like. There ought to be a Lawyers for Trump organization….”



  1. Mahmoud El-Darwish says

    A helpful and insightful piece that adds a fresh perspective to the bigger story.

    What Mears missed is that 2016 isn’t a horse race at all, it’s a political version of the TV talent show, “American Idol”- thus the circus atmosphere. Furthermore, the younger journalists covering the campaign were chosen not only because they’re cheaper but also because their shallow perspectives and sloppy writing resonates with the up and rising voter of 2016, the vacuous millennials, that are immune to in depth literature.

    The media, intoxicated by ratings, which as we all know, sell ads, couldn’t care less about promoting a lying shiIl; since ad sales from covering Trump are what TV news is all about.

    The GOP has now revealed itself as being the ‘big sucker’ in this drama, as they felt the Trump momentum would carry the party to the White House. A better informed party leadership would have resulted in a different choice of horse. Sadly, the runner up may turn out to be worse.

    The take away is that the entire saga reveals just how illiterate and uneducated the American proletariat really is.

    Second only to the challenge of global climate change, education reform should be the imminent race to cure this country’s ills.

  2. Walter Mears and I were fierce if usually friendly rivals when he and I were at UPI and AP, respectively. Now that we are better friends and not rivals at all in retirement, I find myself agreeing with him a lot more than I used to. I endorse his remarks, fully, and am sure that he, like I, sort of wish we were still active — considering this weird and wacky campaign.

  3. Derek Snow says

    I think that comparing Trump to Huey Long is inviting someone to “Stop” him with a bullet and irresponsible, inciting and un-professional. Why didnt you throw the Bobby Kennedy analogy….oh, right, waiting for June in CA. Despicable.

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