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Media Article # 397

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Sasquatch for President

By William Powers
The Atlantic

The beauty of Bigfoot is that we know so little about him—unlike our overcovered presidential candidates.

Nearly lost amid the Reagan hoopla last week was the news that Bigfoot has been sighted again. In a wire story filed from far northern Canada, the Associated Press authoritatively reported on fresh evidence that the great hairy one—Sasquatch—may actually exist.

The details vary slightly from year to year, but the essential Bigfoot narrative is always the same. In case you missed it, this time two Yukon Territory residents, Marion Sheldon and Gus Jules, were out driving a few Sundays ago between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., "when they passed what resembled a person standing on the side of the highway." Imagining that this person-resembling creature might be in need, the kindly pair turned around and approached it, at which point, "they noticed the figure was covered in hair, but standing upright the entire time."

Not just upright but 7 feet worth of upright, the "shook-up" men later told police, and definitely not a bear.

"Though natural light was dusky, Jules saw what he believed to be flesh tones hidden beneath the mat of hair.... As the two parties went their separate ways, the dark-haired figure crossed the highway in two or three steps."

Now, up in northern Canada, the hour between 1 and 2 a.m. is not just prime Sasquatch-spotting time—it's also closing time. But let's not spoil this excellent media ritual with small-minded cavils and doubts. Bigfoot has been around for a long time, the subject of endless hoaxes, scares, tabloid photo spreads, junior-high-school rumors, and TV "documentaries" with portentously gravelly narrators. If he doesn't exist, there's clearly a part of us that wishes he did.

In fact, there's something reassuring and even soothing about the old Sasquatch yarn, especially when you compare it with another story that comes around with clocklike regularity and involves sightings of somewhat scary masculine figures who vaguely resemble people and are often very tall: the campaign for president.

An unfair comparison, perhaps, but it gets at what may be the most serious flaw of the media's presidential coverage: the sheer excess of it all. The beauty of Big- foot is that we know so little about him. He's the ultimate mystery man—or mystery half-man—glimpsed briefly through a blizzard or the "dusky" light of the midnight sun. And because we never meet him up close, we can endow him with all sorts of interesting qualities. Maybe he's not really as cruel and vicious as he looks; maybe, like Frankenstein's monster, he's just desperately lonely. It's hard being the Missing Link—whom do you bond with? Admit it: At least once in your life, you identified with poor Sasquatch.

Bigfoot belongs to the less-is-more school of journalism, a once-revered method of storytelling that assumed that the public doesn't need to be told everything about a given story, that a few well-chosen facts and anecdotes can speak volumes. This school began to die in the middle decades of the 20th century, when the New Journalism arrived, with its more-is-more emphasis on lavish description, long narratives, and wildly stylish writing. The new journalism had a profound effect on political coverage. It ushered in the deep, multipart profiles of presidential candidates, which begin issuing forth a few months into each new administration and continue pell-mell right through the election.

On top of this, the explosion of news outlets in the 1990s, especially on cable and the Internet, created more time and space to fill with political news. And fill it we do, with so much content about the leading candidates, we're sick of them long before they're even nominated.

I know about John Kerry's childhood, and I know about his college years. I know about Vietnam, and I know about post-Vietnam. I know about both his marriages, and about the various women he dated in between. I know what motorcycle he rides, and what his many houses are worth (about $33 million). Based strictly on the media coverage, I feel as if I've known his wife and several of his top aides for years. When I saw this week that Teresa Heinz Kerry called herself "cheeky" and "sexy," I nodded to myself that she was right, that's the Teresa I know. I've never met the woman.

I know what Kerry says in his sleep, literally, and I know what he does minute to minute every day. "Relaxation Comes Hard For Kerry, As Bike Tumble Mars a Visit Home," reported The Boston Globe one day last month. "Kerry to Attend Daughter's Graduation," noted a wire story two weeks ago, inevitably followed by, "Kerry Attends Daughter's Graduation."

Ditto, more or less, for President Bush. We are not yet in the restroom with the candidates, but I do believe that's coming, perhaps in 2008.

The situation is inevitable, and it can't be fixed. The media are not about to pull back from scrutinizing presidential candidates in every possible detail, nor, I suppose, should they. This is life in an information-obsessed democracy. The more we know, the smarter we vote.

Still, when we have so much information about candidates that we render them boring and lifeless, I wonder whether reporters are not doing a disservice. There are times—now, for example—when the onslaught of presidential journalism becomes so oppressive that the hapless voter longs for some dimly lit Sasquatch-style coverage. A little spareness could go a long way toward making these elections more interesting. It might even humanize the beasts who run for president.

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