DI offers no free passes


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Daily Iowan staffers look at things differently from everyone else.

No, I don't mean we're naturally inquisitive or especially curious about the world or anything fluffy like that. I mean that journalists want bad things to happen.

For instance, I spent a few months working as a "mobile journalist" for a different eastern Iowa news organization. Basically, I listened to the police scanner and chased fires and car crashes. I never, ever hoped anyone died in an accident, but I did find myself hoping that there would be broken bones or significant fire damage so that I'd have something to write about. If it was just a little smoke or a fender-bender, my trip to the scene was for nothing.

Sick, right?

We do the same thing with public affairs. We want so badly to uncover a scandal that we're disappointed and bored when a public employee is found to be doing a good job.

A few weeks ago I used the state's open-records law to request a big batch of emails to and from University of Iowa Vice President for Student Life Tom Rocklin. The request turned up around 1,300 messages spanning a few weeks. As with any public-records request, my editors and I sifted through the emails hoping to find something controversial.

Alas, we came up with nothing.

Turns out — predictably so, if you know Rocklin — that he's just doing a good job. He's helpful to all the hundreds of people who email him each week, knows a ton about what's going on across the university, and has students' best interest (or at least his perception thereof) in mind.

The emails — and the hours we spent looking through them — weren't all a waste. We got tipped off on some stories we wouldn't have otherwise known about. And open-records requests always serve the purpose of reminding public officials that what they do is public.

But is it bad that we're so motivated by scandal?

That we're always trying to dig up dirt certainly strains our relationship with public officials. When university administrators and local politicians know we're looking for dirt, they're likely to be cold to us, even if they're not doing anything wrong.

Additionally, because we're so focused on public affairs, we do fewer positive stories. Other news outlets in our market run occasional soft stories that basically promote local officials and that probably gives other reporters a better rapport with their sources. We don't really do that. Instead, we have a polite-yet-adversarial relationship with local governments.

In the national media, reporters have a faux-adversarial relationship with policymakers. For instance, ABC's Brian Ross went after Rep. Michele Bachmann aggressively earlier this year about her headaches. He was right to be question aggressively, but he picked the wrong issue to ask about.

When there are real issues that demand tough questions from mainstream reporters, Ross and his colleagues are much less aggressive.

Sometimes the stakes are even higher. Look at the White House, for instance. Because the White House press corps is so chummy with the administration, reporters have failed to ask tough questions of the two most recent presidents. In particular, former President George W. Bush mostly got a free pass on the War on Terror, and President Barack Obama has seldom heard tough questions on his connections with Big Business.

"That much-ballyhooed 'liberal press' hasn't been nearly as tough on President Bush as it was on his predecessor," wrote Rachel Smolkin in the American Journalism Review during the Bush years. "One key reason: Bush's controversies have involved policy rather than personal peccadilloes, and the media have a much bigger appetite for the latter."

Likewise, Washington, D.C., media have constantly failed to shine much light on Obama as a corporatist. He championed big bailouts for profit-making corporations and has done little to pursue regulations and higher taxes that his base supposedly wants. Despite all that, the mainstream media still take Obama adviser David Plouffe seriously when he says, "If you're concerned about Wall Street and our financial system, the president is standing on the side of consumers and the middle class."

So are we too negative at the DI? Maybe. But if the alternative is giving free passes, we're OK with that.

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