Media Criticism

Newsflash: Candidates Raise Money

In another waste of newsprint, The Washington Post reports this morning that Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell have raised money for the gubernatorial campaigns.  Wow!

Among the insights we get:

The Deeds campaign said a surge in donations was to be expected after a divisive primary as party loyalists came together behind their nominee.

…With just one other governor’s race this year, in New Jersey, Virginia’s election will attract attention and money from both national parties. It will be viewed as a measure of President Obama’s popularity

…"It’s an important race," said Mame Reiley, who was Democrat Brian Moran’s campaign chairwoman in the primary. "It’s an indicator of things to come on the federal level."

…"This race is about Virginia," Deeds spokesman Jared Leopold said. "It’s about how we get to work and how our kids are doing in school."

No news here.  But hey, it was easy to report, easy to fill up the space in the Metro section.

If neither candidate has reported anything unusual about how much money he raised, and we’re still nearly four months out from the election, and money didn’t seem to matter in the Democratic primary, couldn’t this report been made in a small box charting how much was raise and is on hand?

So far, we have had at least three Post reporters – Helderman, Kumar and Gardner — on Virginia’s governor’s race.  So far, none had brought us any insight or elucidated key issues in the race.

Measuring Productivity

I’m sure there are many ways of measuring productivity.  The economists have one definition.  It is nebulous if you try to fashion a yardstick to measure it.  My wife has another.  She uses what I call the humping factor, as in “The trash men who jump off the back of the truck, run to the trash can, dump your refuse in the truck, send the can hurling back to the curb and then run to the next can, those guys are productive.”  It may be said that those guys are humping it. 

Then again, there is the Tax Foundation’s definition of productive.  It apparently means anyone who’s rich. Asked to comment by Lori Montgomery, a Washington Post reporter, on the taxes Democrats are considering to pay for health care reform, a senior fellow, Robert Carroll, of the Tax Foundation, said it’s not the poor schleps who toss your trash can around.

"One has to decide whether the health-care reform package they’re talking about is worth imposing such high tax rates on the most productive members of society," Carroll said.

What makes them productive, he doesn’t say, and apparently Montgomery never asked.  She just let him make the assertion that rich people are the most productive.  Which means the economy lost a great leader when Michael Jackson died.

It also means stenography is alive and well at The Post.

But let me find lemonade in this lemon of a story.  Montgomery didn’t identify the Tax Foundation as “liberal” or “conservative,” as is often the case when quoting sources that represent an organization.  Thanks for that. 

So I get to guess whether this comment is colored by a ideological prejudice.  That’s fine.  I just wish I had some way of evaluating whether his statement is correct.  Ms. Montgomery could have helped me here instead of just recording his comment.

No News! Read It Here First!

If Washington Post executives want to revive their flagging fortunes, they don’t need salons.  They need stories.  So it’s disheartening to see them waster valuable newsprint on a non-story.

Sure Washington is the ultimate politcal insider town.  Many folks here love to read about the politics of campaigns, how they’re waged and stategies employed.  But are there enough such readers to sustain a general interest newspaper, even in Washington, DC?

Apparently, editors at The Post seem to think so.  How else to explain the fornt page, above the fold story about the inaction in the Virginia’s governor’s race.

To a degree rarely seen in state politics, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell have spent the early summer hunkered down, amassing resources and plotting strategy for what is expected to be a fierce clash of styles and ideas. They are girding for a campaign that is viewed as a bellwether of President Obama’s sway with voters and a first test of the issues that Republicans hope will revive their party.

And yet, Deeds has held only a handful of events since his June primary victory, and McDonnell is going on vacation. Television and radio airwaves have fallen silent.

There is absolutely no news here except that the campagins are not gneerating news.  So why then write about it, in the middle of the summer when jouirnalists will tell you many people are not paying attention to the race yet?  I’m not even sure the politcal cognescenti care.  As of this morning, the story has generated a paltry 19 comments on the Post’s web site.  And if they don’t care about this story, why should the average voter/newspaper reader care?

I’ve written before about The Post’s obsession with politcal strategy as opposed to issues.  To be fair, The Post (that, my frequent criticism notwithstanding, is still one great newspaper) can give us many stories of substance.  This morning’s A1 story about prisons is one good example.   In fact, it would have been helpful for the reporter of this story to team up with Anita Kumar covering the Virginia gubernatorial or attorney general races to look at the issue from the Commonwealth’s perspective, especially as it seems to not be following the progressive direction of many state prison systems.

Instead of wasting newspaper real estate on something few people care about and offers no news of substance, why not pick an issue, examine it from a voter’s perspective, and write about it.  If The Post doesn’t write about things people care about, it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re losing readers.

Bias By a “Reporter”

Feeling a little disrespected, progressives, after President Obama yesterday told you to mind your manners?

"We shouldn’t be focusing resources on each other," Obama opined in the call, according to three sources who participated in or listened to the conversation. "We ought to be focused on winning this debate."

Specifically, Obama said he is hoping left-leaning organizations that worked on his behalf in the presidential campaign will now rally support for "advancing legislation" that fulfills his goal of expanding coverage, controlling rising costs and modernizing the health system.

And if you don’t…

Obama also hinted that efforts are under way to discourage allies from future attacks on Democrats, according to the source, who did not have permission to speak on the record about the discussion.

So an anonymous source delivers his threat.  Obama’s reputation as a wuss is bolstered. Progressives, perhaps it will be an anonymous source who’ll put you in the time-out corner.

And helping the president in his effort to exert discipline on those who worked for change and are increasingly disappointed is the “reporter” of the article.

See, she’s not a real reporter.  She’s not the kind of reporter who delivers the facts and context dispassionately.  She’s the kind of “reporter” who finds ways of denigrating those she doesn’t respect.  Isn’t that what we do when we describe someone in quotes? 

MoveOn, a Web-based political action committee that works to elect "progressive" leaders, intended to run commercials….

Can you imagine her writing that Focus on the Family works on behalf of electing “conservative” leaders?  You might think that she thinks they’re not really conservative at all, but wannabes.  Or worse, some fringe group.

This is the same “reporter” who drew a strong reaction form someone she misquoted, after accusing him of being unable to “to articulate a substantive argument for the public plan,” when the “reporter” hadn’t asked him to do so.

Ceci Connolly clearly has a chip on her shoulder. Or maybe she’s miffed that her employer didn’t invite her to a salon (use the French pronunciation, sa-lawhn, s’il vous plait) where she would get to mingle with health care executives in hopes of finding a cushy “PR” job, when her “reporter” days are over.

Let’s wish her luck in her job hunting. 

Are Washington Post Reporters for Sale?

Fortunately, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli is trying to extricate the news staff from this offer of pay for access to its reporters.

“Offered at $25,000 per sponsor, per Salon. Maximum of two sponsors per Salon. Underwriters’ CEO or Executive Director participates in the discussion. Underwriters appreciatively acknowledged in printed invitations and at the dinner. Annual series sponsorship of 11 Salons offered at $250,000 … Hosts and Discussion Leaders … Health-care reporting and editorial staff members of The Washington Post … An exclusive opportunity to participate in the health-care reform debate among the select few who will actually get it done. … A Washington Post Salon … July 21, 2009 6:30 p.m. …

"Washington Post Salons are extensions of The Washington Post brand of journalistic inquiry into the issues, a unique opportunity for stakeholders to hear and be heard," the flier says. "At the core is a critical topic of our day. Dinner and a volley of ideas unfold in an evening of intelligent, news-driven and off-the-record conversation. … By bringing together those powerful few in business and policy-making who are forwarding, legislating and reporting on the issues, Washington Post Salons give life to the debate. Be at this nexus of business and policy with your underwriting of Washington Post Salons."

UPDATE:  The Post’s ombudsman call this a “PR disaster.”  But Brauchli doesn’t have complete deniability.

The flier came out of the office Charles Pelton, who joined The Post recently to find ways to generate business through conferences and events. The Post, like many struggling newspapers, is desperately seeking new sources of revenue.

“There’s no intention to influence or pedal,” Pelton said this morning. “There’s no intention to have a Lincoln Bedroom situation,” referring to charges that President Clinton used invitations to stay at the White House as a way of luring political backing.

Pelton said newsroom leaders, including Brauchli, had been involved in discussions about the salons and other events.

“This was well developed with the newsroom,” he said. “What was not developed was the marketing message to potential sponsors.”

Brauchli acknowledged discussions, but said they had centered on “identifying events that we think are worthy of newsroom participation, whether it’s a conference or a smaller event.”

Had they talked about where to draw the line on participation by reporters and editors?

“I thought we had,” he said, adding that he takes some responsibility for “not communicating effectively enough what the limitations were for newsroom participation.”

Brauchli did not rule out such participation, but said it would have to meet conditions that ensure there are no ethical conflicts for the newsroom.

“We would want to determine the subject matter,” he said. “We would want to assure ourselves that there were multiple sponsors and not sponsors with a vested interest.”

And, he said, “our preference is that things always be on the record.”

Still, it’s nice to have the opportunity to pay to sit down with a reporter in such a setting.  Do you think a reporter would feel comfortable questioning sources when the publisher is looking over his shoulder and about to deposit a check for $25,000 from the poor schmuck the reporter is trying to cut down to size?

UPDATE 2: Event is cancelled

Why Reporters Should Keep Opinions to Themselves

How was President Obama’s town hall meeting on healthcare yesterday?

According to the AP headline and its story about it, his performance was thin gruel.

Emotion, few details, in Obama’s health care pitch (headline)

…The health care changes that Obama called for Wednesday would reshape the nation’s medical landscape. He says he wants to cover nearly 50 million uninsured Americans, to persuade doctors to stress quality over quantity of care, to squeeze billions of dollars from spending.

But details on exactly how to do those things were generally lacking in his hour-long town hall forum before a friendly, hand-picked audience in a Washington suburb.

But The Washington Post called his performance “wonkish.”

President Obama offered a wonkish defense of his embattled health-care reform effort during an hour-long town hall meeting in Northern Virginia yesterday that featured seven questions, including one sent via Twitter and several from a handpicked audience of supporters.

…One Twitter user asked whether it makes sense to tax people’s health-care coverage as a way to pay for reform. That led Obama to offer a long explanation of the various financing proposals, including his own for limiting deductions for the wealthy.

Why do reporters try to signal us how we should feel about the information they are imparting?  As Jack Webb (as those of you old enough to remember his TV detective persona) might say, “Just the fact, ma’am.”

The Post reporters, Mike Shear and Jose Antonio Vargas, seemed particularly judgmental today.

With the president’s health-care ambitions meeting a cool reception on Capitol Hill, the administration is increasingly seeking to pressure lawmakers with evidence of the public’s desire for action as well as proof that the health-care industry is a stakeholder in — not an opponent of — the effort.

“Meeting a cool reception”?  How do they judge that?  As best I can tell, the principal tenants of Obama’s outline are still in tact, including the public option. Are there challenges to it?  Yes, but principally from the marginalized GOP.  There are a few Democratic senators who are balking, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said all along that her chamber’s healthcare plan will include a public option.  And now the Senate is moving in that direction.

What’s so cool about that?

This comes after Media Matters  objected to a characterization of the effectiveness of a public plan by Post health reporter Ceci Connolly.

[Interim chief executive of Change Congress Adam] Green, in an interview, was hard-pressed to articulate a substantive argument for the public plan [emphasis added] but said that it "has become a proxy for the question of Democrats who stand on principle and represent their constituents."

As Green articulated in his own post about the interview, he wasn’t asked about the benefits of a public plan.

If Green’s recollection of the interview is correction and given today’s characterization of the debate in Congress, one must ask if The Post has a chip on its shoulder about the plan.

There’s nothing cool about that.

Trying to characterize the entire debate in Congress about Obama’s outline – which is not a detailed plan – is a fool’s errand.  And Post reporters are no fools. 

So what’s the beef?

Lynchpin of Governor’s Race – Taxes?

Roz Helderman had a pedestrian B1 (Metro section) story on the Virginia governor’s race Sunday.  It broke no new ground, and it can be argued that its greatest value was that it reinforced a Republican point of view that taxes are one of the most critical issues facing voters in November.

It can also be argued that an article this soon in the race, at the height of the summer doldrums, will not impact the contest to any great degree.

But more disturbing is that this presages the kind of coverage we’re going to get from The Post on the race.

Even Republican nominee Bob McDonnell recently tried to downplay the tax issue by saying that he wouldn’t take the Grover Norquist anti-tax pledge.

But Helderman and her editors, basically being lazy by re-hashing old tax/no tax arguments, lets us know that The Post, at least, is going to follow this political line throughout the campaign.  This was the first article since the Democratic primary that discussed an issue, instead of being a process article.  And of all the issues The Post could have addressed, they picked taxes.

What we can expect, then, is that Helderman will be asking tax questions throughout the campaign.  Why?  Because it’s easier to do that than study the more complex issues facing the electorate, such as how are we going to fund necessary transportation improvements in this down economy?

As a favor to the GOP, Helderman details votes Democratic candidate state Sen. Creigh Deeds has taken and suggests Deeds speaks with forked tongue.

Deeds, too, has said he does not intend to propose a tax increase. But he has promised to try to fix the state’s roads and rails — an issue often assumed to carry a $1 billion-a-year price tag — in his first year in office.

Basically she’s saying he can’t do it without raising taxes.

Does she ask how McDonnell might address the transportation problem?  No, but she assures us he won’t raise taxes.

[She quoted McDonnell] "I think in a down economy like this, it’s a very bad time to be levying more gas and sales tax on the hardworking citizens of Virginia."

And Helderman gives a prize piece of article real estate to those who argue taxes shouldn’t raised, as she concludes with,

But the economic downturn and a yawning budget gap may provide new resonance for the tax issue this year, said George Mason University professor Mark J. Rozell.

"The state of the economy is so dramatically different than it was in the last election cycle four or eight years ago," he said. "There is a different dynamic out there today."

My argument with this article is not so much what Helderman says or doesn’t say in it.  It’s more of a disappointment that we can expect The Post to take the easy way out in its gubernatorial election coverage. 

No one loves paying taxes.  But real leadership doesn’t start with talking about taxes.  How many of us start our day by saying, “Shall I spend something today, or should I try to make more money than I did yesterday?”  No, we look at what we have, what we would lie, and make a decision whether it’s a good idea to pay for some things now that we know would be a good investment later.  A house comes to mind.  But any decision we make about money basically comes down to what we want and how much we’re willing to sacrifice for it.

The first step for politicians then should be, “This is the vision I have, and here’s how I propose paying for it.”  Wasting valuable newsprint on whether we should raise taxes absent what we’d use them for means that much less discussion on what we want as an electorate. 

The Centrist Charade

In a predictable piece in The Washington Post this morning, there is this:

At its core, Obama’s domestic agenda is a liberal wish list of health care for all, tough new environmental regulations and government solutions to crises ranging from failing schools to faltering auto companies. But as the party’s ranks expanded in 2006 and 2008, its center of gravity shifted to the middle. And the key to a durable majority, White House officials and party leaders agree, is adapting old policy goals to new political realities. [emphasis added]

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), a member of the Democratic leadership, said the party is coalescing as an amalgam of "activist centrists" who think government has a role in solving problems but are more pragmatic than ideological. "I think that’s where the president is, and that’s where we are," he said. "When you win red states, strange things happen." [emphasis added]

I guess the implication is that since Democrats won, it is because they attracted “centrist” or “moderate” voters.  Thus, they must govern not by the demands of their base, but by the whims of the centrists, without whose support, the Dems couldn’t control government.

There are two faults with that thinking, as I see it. 

One, if that were true, then the same would hold for the GOPers.   If they won, it would be because they attracted moderate voters who would then demand that the Repugnican party would govern from the center.  Of course, that has not happened.  When they were in power, they moved hard in the direction of their base, except in financial policies, where they ignored responsibility so they could fund their war machine. 

Two, such “analysis” – and one of the authors of this article, Dan Balz, is famous for passing off conventional wisdom as analysis – demeans the public.  Could it be that the public’s view of what is acceptable has changed dramatically.  No matter how “progressive” or “liberal” Obama’s policies are described in polls, he has broad support for his goals.  While people are concerned about the growing deficit, few except the hard right think the stimulus package was wrong. In fact, many economists think it was too little and not focused enough on infrastructure spending projects.  Obama has broad support for financial re-regulation, and the public seems ahead of him on social issues, especially gay rights.

The new political realities may not be that people are looking for small, incremental change with a slight shift left.  I argue that “[w]hen you win red states” it reflects a strong move by the public in a new direction.  People aren’t looking for a long-term unemployment rate of 7%, a marked improvement over today’s rate.  They are looking for full employment again.  They aren’t looking for a couple of wrist slaps and a few regulations that simply increase paperwork on Wall St.  They are looking for a new structure that rewards steady, long-term investment.

Why is it that reporters aren’t willing to examine if indeed, what we are witnessing in a time of dramatic change in our lives is a dramatic shift in what Americans expect of their government?

Headline Writer Forgot to Read the Story

The Washington Post has a story today about the Virginia governor’s race that reflects, I hope, simply how a headline writer can sometimes spend too little time actually reading the story.  Of course, it could be that he or she looked for any story morsel that would reflect his or her opinion.  If you have another theory, I’m all ears.

The headline on the front page of the Metro section reads “Recession’s Pains Dull Attention to Campaigns.”  People have other things to think about.  Even the head on the jump reflects the same message:  “Struggling Residents Tune Out Governor’s Race.”  In fact, the economy is cited as the reason for the poor turnout in the Democratic primary.  At least that’s the inference of the story.

A deep nationwide recession has touched every corner of the commonwealth, from the depressed factory towns of the south to the high-tech corridors of Fairfax County. For many voters, the problems seem too big, too intractable for any governor to fix, which might have been a factor in the 6 percent turnout in Tuesday’s primary.

But in 2005, the turnout in the GOP gubernatorial primary was 3.98%.  Granted, in that one, it wasn’t hotly contested.  The 2001 Democratic primaries for lieutenant governor and attorney general were, however, and that turnout was only 4.23%.  So on what basis does the reporter say that 6% is a poor turnout?  It is in a cosmic sense, but when was the last time we were significantly above that for a gubernatorial primary?

Let’s forget, for the moment, that the opposite of what the headline reads is the conventional wisdom.  In these tough times, the wise politicos tell us, people are looking to government for solutions, for help, for anything.  Being against government is an argument only the diehard ideological Republicans will make.  The rest of us are looking to it to help us catch a break.

So what evidence do the reporter and headline writer point to support their contention that voters are tuning out, or that “the problems seem too big, too intractable for any governor to fix”?  How did they determine that “many voters” feel this way?

The lede is an anecdote about a woman who was at a school that doubled as a polling place last Tuesday. She was there to pick up her daughter.  She didn’t vote, but nothing about what she said indicated that she was tuning out of the race because of economic difficulties. She may have never voted in a primary in her life.  She may be a Republican who didn’t think it was her place to vote in a Democratic primary.  She may think that voting for politicians only encourages them.  We don’t know.   

In fact, the only person quoted in the story that supports the headline’s contention is a recently unemployed multimedia producer. 

"It just feels sometimes like you’re getting along, you’re able to maintain, but the little bumps in the road keep knocking you down a little bit more each time," he said. "I get the e-mails from all the candidates, from the Republicans or what have you. I delete just about everything."

[The producer], who calls himself a conservative Christian, said he is cynical about politicians. He said he believes that Providence, not the state, will lead him out of his troubles. It will be up to the candidates to persuade him otherwise.

Providence 1, Republicans 0, and the “what have you’s” a minus number. (This certainly has deflated the Democrats.)

Then you have a former USA Today editor who

…has not paid much attention to the governor’s race but will get up to speed by November out of necessity. 

"I have never looked towards any government for any support, ever, until now," he said.

That sounds like he thinks it’s a necessity to follow the governor’s race, that is does matter.

So now we’re at 1-1 in the score.

So how did the writer of the headlines come to his conclusion?

Perhaps she, too, relied on providence.

With such thin gruel with which to write a story, was this one worth the newsprint and ink?  Especially when there are such economic problems, wouldn’t it have been better to write a story about how state government can help?  What is it that state government can do, and that a governor can impact, that would help people?  If they knew, they might be in a better position to seek answers from candidates.

If you wonder why people are apathetic, maybe it’s because newspapers write stories to tell you that it doesn’t matter who you elect. 

If it doesn’t matter who we elect, why does the local paper even cover the campaign?

Another story about process – without any real substantiation. 

Barney Frank Takes on CNBC

I was watching Barney Frank this morning on CNBC, again marveling at his, while not succinct, certainly compelling responses to questions.  He is able to put things in a larger context.  It’s worth hearing how he defends government control of wages in companies taking government bailout funds and the greater say he wants to give shareholders.

But when he tried to answer host Mark Haines question that suggests giving shareholders a say wouldn’t accomplish much, Haynes accused Frank of misrepresenting his question.  Frank did draw a conclusion that Haynes did not specifically say, but one must ask what Haines meant by “burn down the house.”

It concluded with Frank declaring the interview over when he couldn’t finish his answer.