The Breakfast Table: Jeffrey Goldberg and Jack Shafer

From: Jack Shafer
Subject: Pols, the Press, and the Sad Bastard Story
Posted Monday, Feb. 5, 2001, at 7:46 AM ET

Dearest Goldberg,

During the campaign, the press busted the presidential candidates every time they harvested a mawkish anecdote from some specific sad bastard's life to make one of their policy pitches. (Often the sad bastard was strategically placed in the audience to give the TV citizenry that throat-clogging Oprah moment.) I cringed whether it was George Bush demonstrating his compassionate conservatism in one of the debates by misting up over the Texas convict who asked him who really cared about his jailed ass or Al Gore jawboning against pricey pharmaceuticals by complaining that his mother-in-law was paying three times as much for the same arthritis drug that her dog Shiloh consumed (a claim that turned out not to be true).

Politicians rely on cheap, emotional anecdotes for obvious reasons. Theirs is a cheap and emotional business. But what's to explain our press comrades' overreliance on the same technique? Scanning the morning papers I find two sad bastard ledes without even searching. My friend Rachel Zimmerman begins her Page One Wall Street Journal story about drug patent extensions with the up-close and personal story of "Mary Robinson, a Philadelphia X-ray technologist," who enrolled her 7-month-old baby in a drug-testing program in return for a $50 Toys "R" Us gift certificate. It's a fine story about the politics of patent extension, but the anecdote never pays off. Baby Robinson pops up only one more time, deep, deep in the story, where we find out that the diluted drug she was fed in the drug trial cured her indigestion.
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