A documentary about how the idiot media helped elect a moron POTUS
At the beginning of 2016, my team from the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism built a makeshift pop-up newsroom in the front room of the Shaskeen Pub in Manchester, New Hampshire during the lead up to that state’s first-in-the-nation primary contest. Throughout the week, we invited every independent and alternative reporter we encountered on the trail back to the Shaskeen for free beer and a place to work, in the process meeting some seriously unique media makers. One of them was Kevin Bowe, an amateur Mass-based documentarian who was driving back and forth to the Granite State to attend rallies and town halls.
Bowe recently sent over the fruits of his filming, a movie titled Democracy Through the Looking Glass, all “about our broken political information system” and a media that “focuses on the shiny object of the day.” In addition to showing the phenomenon I’ve always loved about covering presidential politics in New Hampshire—that anybody can gain access, formal press credentials be damned—Bowe’s work truly is a stellar exposé of frauds like President Donald Trump and Chris Christie, as well as an indictment of a “media that [is] incapable of thoughtfully covering elections.”
With Bowe showing his doc in Arlington next week, I threw a range of questions at the West Newbury resident.
Besides working as an advocate for those wrestling with drug addiction, which we’ll get to in a couple of questions, what were you doing before you decided to start watching the political action in New Hampshire around this time two years ago?
Short answer: Working as a video producer primarily at the time of my adventure. Long answer is I spent 22 years in the cable advertising business before burning out. For the last 12 years, I’ve done a variety of government, political, and business development work. About 10 years ago I started learning video production and got good enough to start getting paid and incorporated it into my portfolio of services.
About how many trips did you make over how many months? How many hours would you say you spent up there?
My first trip was in May 2015, so I spent 10 months in the field. I estimate I went to about 125 events, many multiple events per day at the end. Hours? Who knows. I was in New Hampshire about two or three times a week for the duration. And as the low person in the media food chain, I had to arrive extra early to claim one of the riser spots not reserved for the “big guys” (which is understandable and I was almost always treated with respect by the campaigns and the media people I worked beside). And let’s not forget the time I then spent producing a web series of about 70 short videos during the primary.
You were one of the few people waiting outside on the scene when Donald Trump arrived in New Hampshire for a meet and greet in June 2016 …
I was the only “media” person waiting for him to arrive. The rest were waiting on the riser …
You say that Trump began to really strike you as a threat of sorts in the months after that, but what else can you say about watching his profile grow over the following year?
It was a little bit of watching his profile grow and a little bit of me realizing this was more than a flash in the pan. Past experience made conventional wisdom think that the early days of Sanders and Trump would burn out over time, and this was more true in the crowded GOP side. But at each subsequent event, you could feel things grow … the campaigns got rooms that accommodated the last overflow crowd, but not today’s surge. At Trump’s second New Hampshire visit in August 2015 there was no doubt he had real appeal. I arrived three hours early and the media and waiting crowds were enormous. And I got more clarity. At Trump’s first event, I treated it as a silly sideshow. But by that second event, I realized the appeal of his message could get him the nomination.
Your documentary addresses the local New Hampshire media’s obsession during the campaign with asking candidates if they thought the Granite State should get to continue having the first-in-the-nation primary every four years. That’s a great observation. Can you explain why that sort of thing is easier to see when you’re reporting on the ground as opposed to watching from afar and following on Twitter?
I’d like to answer that in a bigger context. The local press being obsessed with questions about keeping the primary first-in-the-nation was just a subset of an array of inane questions being asked during media gaggles. These questions ranged from the strategy/process questions like, “What do you think of the latest polls results,” to chasing a meaningless story of the day like a phone call from Kanye West (you can’t make this stuff up!). Why doesn’t that inane and superficial environment come through via Twitter? One key reason: they are such softball questions that candidates handle them easily, so they never warranted a tweet (unless of course the candidate says they oppose New Hampshire’s FITN status, and then Twitter would explode). Reporters are not going to tweet out the answers to softball questions that candidates handle with ease, they’ll tweet out something else.
While it’s clear that you disapprove of Trump, it’s not exactly clear where you sit politically (other than that you loathe Chris Christie, who you yell at for being a phoney for his coddling of opiate manufacturers). Is that a deliberate attempt at some kind of objectivity?
I’m not a big fan of “objectivity.” It often leads you down the road of presenting false equivalencies. I believe in fairness and critical thinking, which is what I tried to apply. I certainly have my biases and I try to check it at the door. I could have been wonderful to Christie. I loved a lot of the things he was saying and doing on the campaign trail with regards to the opioid crisis. But I didn’t make him do what he did in New Jersey to reveal his hypocrisy (let’s keep the audience guessing as to what that was). I followed the story to where it lead me.
Who were some candidates who, watching them up close, seemed like they had a damn good chance and really did connect with voters but who weren’t able to gain enough traction in the end?
Not many. Lots of oxygen was taken up real quickly by Sanders and Clinton and O’Malley never clicked (with me). I thought Rand Paul could go places based on my first Paul event in July 2015, but he just got worse as time went on. Bush never had life. Graham was refreshingly honest, so you know how that played out. There was a reason Rubio is often compared to a robot. Christie worked hard and did seem to be on the cusp of momentum at times, but in the end he was not first on the dance-cards of many voters.
Other than Trump, Sanders and Clinton (yes, Clinton), the only other candidates that connected were Cruz and Kasich. Of course, they’d never connect with the same audiences. Cruz did connect with the gun community, [and with] evangelicals and libertarians who are closeted foreign policy hawks. Kasich was your only “classic New Hampshire primary” story of a candidate doing a ton of small town halls, hitting stride a month before the election, with each event getting bigger, with the candidate being more confident, the applause getting stronger and louder … he was the only one gaining traction in the end.
Your movie has some real depth. You focus on the way that the opiate addiction was used as a political prop, and on people like Victor Sims, a young man who grew up in foster care in Florida and came up to New Hampshire to confront Jeb Bush. Is that essentially you saying: If I can do it, how come the professional media can’t produce meaningful stories?
Yes. And I gave other brief examples of “meaningful stories” that illuminate issues that are on the mind of voters, before I settled into telling my “Alzheimer’s story.” There was the combat veteran turned peace activist and a member of the National Guard facing combat deployment, both looking for specific answers from candidates about war and peace issues. Or the 73 year old man asking why he has to still work, because he can’t afford to retire, but is paying taxes for other people to retire at 55. Or the mom—whose 14 year old son was been diagnosed with the gene that will lead to him getting cancer—wanting to know if candidates would fund cancer research. These stories create ways to draw readers/viewers into “issues” without being wonkish. But the media is apparently incapable of telling these kinds of stories and instead focuses 90 percent of their time and energy covering the optics of the campaign—writing about the strategies or latest polls and not about problems. Ultimately, as one analyst points out, this creates a disconnect between the media and their audiences and contributed to the distrust that people of all ideological persuasions have for the media in general.
I don’t think you intentionally set out to make Boston Globe Editor Brian McGrory look like an out of touch imbecile, but there is a remarkable interview with him in your film in which he says that Globe writers and brass only thought to cover the opiate crisis in 2014, after then-Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State speech to the “full-blown heroin crisis,” and the New York Times wrote about it on their front page. What was it like to discover right up close that these people really are that disconnected to the reality the rest of us live in?
I realized a long time ago that—with a few exceptions—the major media outlets and politicians at the statewide and national levels had no sense of the opioid crisis that was unfolding right before them in the Aughts. Even Shumlin’s speech was one year after the CDC declared prescription drug abuse an epidemic. Purdue Pharma pled guilty in 2007 for lying to doctors (for a decade) about the addictive nature of Oxycontin. In 2008, more people were dying of prescription drugs (mostly opioids) than car accidents. In 2004 one doctor in MA was supplying about one-third of all the Oxycontin in state and pill mills were setting up shop in many states. Yet the American people learned more about the handful of SARS and Ebola cases in the world than [they learned about] the millions of Americans affected by the opioid crisis. When the tragic history of this epidemic is written in 50 years, our media and political leaders will be viewed as negligent for their lack of vigilance. The warning signs were everywhere for a very long time.
There’s an incredible story within a story in here about a New Hampshire woman who cares for her husband with Alzheimer’s, and who wound up introducing Hillary Clinton at a town hall event after you made a video about her plight. Really it’s a story about how the press failed once again. Can you explain how you came to juxtapose that with the story about the tattoo parlor that became national news for giving out free Trump tattoos—before it even gave away a single free Trump tattoo!
I was looking for one of those quintessential “human interest stories,” and I found it Brenda Bouchard and her advocacy to increase funding to cure Alzheimer’s. She was caring for both her husband and mother suffering from the disease. I thought it was a great story and thought a “real” media outlet would take it from me. (Which would have been great, because it is a story worthy of an audience far bigger than I could deliver.) And the story kept getting better. Clinton really did order her staff to develop a policy solution around curing Alzheimer’s and rolled it out. And to this day I’m still puzzled as to why not one of the scores of reporters (or their editors) had any interest in this story. Then in that last week or so of the Primary, I kept bumping into reporters saying they just got back from covering the tattoo guy giving away free Trump tattoos. After the primary, I did some thinking about [what I learned], reflecting on how the media behavior and their stories played out. I googled the tattoo story and was amazed at the pages of search results of articles about this “news” story. The guy was 10 miles from me, so I interviewed him in March, figuring I was going to get an “anatomy of pack journalism” story. I got that, plus the anatomy of how the media themselves can be unwittingly accomplices to manufacturing news. Driving back from that interview, the light bulb went off as to what my documentary would be about.
You’re a damn good media reporter. Will you be doing more of this? Or have you had enough of the bullshit by now?
I would love to do more documentary work like this. Maybe not this kind of media criticism, but I’d like to think that my beat is “Democracy in America” and the many challenges it is facing today. I’m also fascinated with documenting the intersection of media, politics, and technology in the early days of the digital age, as it disrupts our printing press democracy. But like everything, money is the decider in these things, and whether projects like this can be financially sustainable is the big question.