Iowa’s mainstream media lack substance in caucus coverage

BY ADAM B SULLIVAN | JUNE 23, 2011 7:20 AM

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Around 10 other reporters and I were hanging out with Tim Pawlenty in Des Moines this past weekend. The former Minnesota governor had just finished talking to a crowd at a Strong America Now event and took a few minutes to talk with the Iowa caucus media. The presser was going well — someone asked about his economic experience, I asked Pawlenty a couple questions on the deficit, and a blogger asked him about abortion.

And then a mainstream-media reporter — from The Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon, in fact — lobbed up a softball. She said he’d taken some criticism on his last debate performance and she was wondering how he planned to recover.

Is that a question Iowa depends upon?

Inquiries such as that are now the norm, not the exception. Mainstream news reporters take the term “political arena” too literally. They actually turn elections into sport, asking about campaign strategy, image-sculpting, and audience reception.

After any event that hosts a crowd of reporters, I like to check on what the other reporters came up with to make sure my relatively immature news judgment didn’t miss something important.

First, I went to that dependable newspaper, the Des Moines Register. Political columnist Kathie Obradovich had written a post titled, “Gary Johnson at Strong America: Slash defense.” All right; some real, solid issues-based reporting about the military budget.

Nope. Instead, Obradovich writes about how former New Mexico Gov. Johnson is unpalatable to Iowa caucus-goers because wants to legalize pot and bring down the behemoth Defense budget.

However, she doesn’t cite any polling data to prove that’s the case, instead relying on her trusty conventional wisdom — the same conventional wisdom that would have told you we’d never have a black president, a gay GOP candidate, or demands for another Bush. A chorus of readers have commented on the story, calling the author out for the unfair assumption. Obradovich has not yet responded.

Other mainstream media accounts were better, but not Pulitzer-winners.

O. Kay Henderson at Radio Iowa focused on the deficit but spent too much time quoting talking points and too little time critically evaluating what they had to say.

The Register’s Jason Clayworth jumped into the debate over whether Pawlenty left Minnesota with a deficit. That’s a solid issue to report on, but the reporter cites Pawlenty saying he didn’t leave a deficit instead of crunching the numbers to find the truth. A headline reading “Pawlenty didn’t leave state with $6.2 billion deficit” would have been much stronger than the headline used: “Pawlenty: I didn’t leave my state in a $6.2 billion deficit.”

The danger of non-substantive campaign reporting is that it encourages non-substantive voting. We have a terrible epidemic in the U.S. of voters casting ballots based on candidates’ style and tone. The best example of that is Barack Obama in 2008 — there was evidence before the election that the Illinois Democrat was a pro-war corporatist, but the news media did a poor job of reporting that. So voters got excited about Obama’s message and neglected the issues.

The same happens on the Republican side, of course. You’ll hear caucus-goers talking about how they care mostly about values and convictions rather than about positions and experience. That happens because punditry about the candidates’ image is widely available, but reliable information about what the candidates proposals are likely to do are hard to come by.

But it’s the effect on independents that is possibly the most unfortunate. Shallow political coverage and the portrayal of politics as a game encourages non-partisans to stay on the bench. While mainstream media coverage is typically vacuous, every four years we’re reminded how bad it’s become, as reporters coddle candidates and fail in their duty to inform the public.

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