Over at Nieman Watchdog, Dan Froomkin summarizes a panel discussion of the media's failure to challenge the Bush administration's Iraq spin, including some suggestions for how to improve. Here's one of the best:
Acknowledge scoops by rival news organizations, then follow them up, like a relay team. "One of the things that I did in the book that I think maybe would be useful if people did more often just generally in daily reporting, was to give credit and follow up on other people's reporting," Mayer said, referring to "The Dark Side," her recent chronicle of the Bush administration's war on terror. "There is some kind of bias that editors have that if somebody else has broken a story, and you even acknowledge that they've broke the story… that you can't do your own version of it. And in fact, what it prohibits then, is following up and adding on…. It would have been better if the New York Times and Washington Post [had] said, 'What are these curveball stories?' and ran with it and took it further." Tom Rosensteil, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the panel's moderator, pointed out: "[T]hat's very much the model that scientists use in trying to investigate a problem, who do not work in large institutions but really sort of work as singular researchers in collaboration with each other."
It's been striking how much this hasn't happened over the past 8 years -- particularly to anyone who remembers how the Times and Post spent the Clinton era trying to one-up each other on the phony Whitewater story.
You could almost see reporters, producers and editors collectively jump out of their seats when John McCain introduced (and then mentioned ad nauseam) his version of the Everyman in the debate Wednesday night.
Two days later and the press coverage of Joe shows no sign of abating.
Have voters like this starred in cameo campaign appearances in the past? Yes. Has the the press treated them as Wildy Important News Stories? Not quite like this.
We think that's because each election cycle the press becomes more and more enamored with trivia and symbolism and tactics. And since Joe the Plumber combines all three, the press has all but ignored all the other issues and topic discussed at the debate and focused its attention on the part that really didn't matter much.
Here's a view taste of the media's overkill (not even including the TV coverage), via ABC's The Note Must-Reads:
2008: 'JOE THE PLUMBER':
ABC News' Imaeyen Ibanga and Russell Goldman: "America's Overnight Sensation Joe the Plumber Owes $1,200 in Taxes" LINK
The Washington Post's Robert Barnes: "After Debate, Glare Of Media Hits Joe - Plumbers Union, Tax Collectors Notice" LINK
The Boston Herald's Katy Jordan: "Debate flushes out fans in regular Joe pipeline" LINK
Bloomberg's Ryan J. Donmoyer and Kristin Jensen: "McCain's Focus On 'The Plumber' To Repair Campaign Has Pitfalls" LINK
The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman: "As Joe The Plumber Grows Famous, The Politics Get Murkier" LINK
USA Today's Dennis Cauchon and Peter Eisler: "Press Vets 'Joe The Plumber' After Last Debate" LINK
The Washington Times' Donald Lambro: "Joe Exposes Candidates Sharp Divisions" LINK
The Los Angeles Times' Robin Abcarian and P.J. Huffstutter: "Joe the Plumber Can Relate to The Britney Thing" LINK
The Hill's' Chris Good: "Plumbers union rips McCain on 'Joe the Plumber'" LINK
That, according to the WaPo's Dana Milbanks:
I have to say the Secret Service is in dangerous territory here. In cooperation with the Palin campaign, they've started preventing reporters from leaving the press section to interview people in the crowd. This is a serious violation of their duty -- protecting the protectee -- and gets into assisting with the political aspirations of the candidate. It also often makes it impossible for reporters to get into the crowd to question the people who say vulgar things. So they prevent reporters from getting near the people doing the shouting, then claim it's unfounded because the reporters can't get close enough to identify the person.
A journalist for the News & Record in Burlington, N.C. covered yesterday's Palin appearance. Afterwards, a supporter confronted the reporter, kicked the back of his leg, buckling his knee and sent "sprawling onto the ground."
With "Surveys Split on Who Has Lead in Presidential Race" (And yes, Drudge is hyping it.)
Really, the surveys are "split"? Some polls today show Barack Obama ahead and others give John McCain the advantage?
Actually, the article itself acknowledges "To be sure, Sen. Obama leads in every national poll, and the Electoral College map appears to favor the Illinois senator."
So where does the split come in?
The Journal piece does seem quite anxious want to jump onto the McCain 'comeback' bandwagon alerting readers "the presidential race is still close, and the Republican has even gained ground in recent days."
Question: Is the Journal trying to convince voters, or is it trying to to convince itself?
UPDATE: Well, that didnt' take long. the WSJ headline has been changed. Online, it now reads "Some Surveys Indicate Tighter Presidential Race"
The headline reads, "Experts warn of Nov. 4 voting meltdowns," and the article is about all the new voters being put on the rolls and whether states, especially Ohio and Florida will be able to handle the stress on Election Day.
But it turns out the only ones warning about a "meltdown" are editors at Politico. Because none of the experts quoted in the story use that kind of doomsday language.
Instead, most sound like Kimball Brace, from Election Data Services, which advises local government on election administration. Brace told Politico, "There's still reason to be concerned in terms of what's going to take place in November."
That's a long way from "meltdown" talk. This seems to be a case of editors pushing a provocative theme that reporters haven't quite nailed down.
Referring to an exchange between McCain and Obama about negative ads, Time's Karen Tumulty asks and answers: "Who's more negative? It's a draw."
Tumulty based her conclusion not on a qualitative assessment of the candidates' ads, but on a statement from Professor Ken Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, which counts ads and assesses them as "positive," "negative," or "contrast."
The Project doesn't differentiate between true and false negative ads, or assess degrees of negativity -- "John Smith's tax plan is wrong for America" is treated the same as "Jane Smith is a terrorist." That's a fundamentally flawed approach to assessing which campaign is "more negative." And, given the nastiness of McCain's ads, not to mention their frequent inaccuracy, it's an approach that favors McCain.
But, fine. We'll play along.
Tumulty's conclusion is an awfully generous reading of Goldstein's statement, which noted that 47 percent of McCain's general election campaign ads have been negative, compared to 35 percent for Obama. (27 percent of McCain's ads and 25 percent of Obama's have been contrast ads.)
Not only is Tumulty's conclusion generous to McCain, Goldstein seems to be as well.
According to Goldstein, 39 percent of Obama ads have been positive, 35 percent negative, and 25 percent contrast.
According to Goldstein, 26 percent of McCain ads have been positive, 47 percent negative, and 27 percent contrast.
So, that's pretty clear: a significantly larger portion of McCain's ads have been negative. A significantly larger portion of Obama's ads have been positive.
Yet Goldstein asserts:
But, Obama has aired over 50,000 more ads than McCain. So, hasn't he simply aired more of everything - including negative ads - than McCain has this year, or than anyone in history, as McCain may have alleged?
If one just looks at pure airings of negative ads, McCain has aired more than Obama. If one allocates contrast ads as half positive and half negative or considers contrast ads as negative - as the Advertising Project does - the tone of the McCain and Obama campaigns has been absolutely identical.
It isn't entirely clear what Goldstein is trying to say, but it appears he's saying that the two campaigns have run the same number (not percentage) of negative ads (including contrast ads.)* And that because they've run the same number of negative ads, their "tone" has "been absolutely identical."
That seems reasonable enough -- until you remember that the campaigns have run positive ads, too. And that Obama has run many more positive ads than McCain. If they've run the same number of negative ads, and Obama has run many more positive ads, obviously their tone has not been "absolutely identical." McCain's has been more negative.
So it may be accurate to say they've run the same number of negative ads -- Goldstein's statement doesn't include the raw numbers necessary to make such a determination, but that's what he seems to assert. But it does not follow that their tone is identical; Goldstein's conclusion is simply illogical.
* If this isn't what Goldstein's saying, his conclusion that the "tone of the McCain and Obama campaigns has been absolutely identical" is self-evidently false, as Goldstein's own numbers show that a significantly larger proportion of McCain's ads have been negative.
UPDATE: In the comment thread attached to her post, Tumulty writes: "Ah, just saw the Media Matters piece on this ... I'll go with Wisconsin on this."
Here's the thing: "Wisconsin's" conclusion is demonstrably false; fatally undermined by their own data. Choosing to "go with Wisconsin" on this means choosing to be wrong. The Wisconsin project's data indicates that a significantly higher proportion of Obama's ads have been positive, and Obama has run many more positive ads. Concluding from that that the "tone" of the two ad campaigns has been "identical" is simply wrong. This isn't a matter of interpretation. It's right there in the project's data. And in the definition of "identical."
So the question now is: Why does Karen Tumulty prefer to stand with a false conclusion that makes John McCain look better?
Were pundits last night disappointed that the debate wasn't more fun; that the substance-driven forum wasn't more entertaining?
That's the vibe Melissa McEwan picked up:
Detecting that wee bit of disappointment at the increasingly likely prospect that they're going to have to cover "the boring guy" for at least the next four years sent a chill up my spine, but it also pissed me right off.
Bonus question: When Ambinder mocks people for "mining the blood relations and voting history of Joe the Plumber," does he recognize that they're doing so because the media is pretending Joe the Plumber is the most important thing to talk about? And by "the media," I mean "people like Marc Ambinder," who mentioned "Joe The Plumber" 11 times on his blog before mocking others for looking into the guy's background. Two consecutive (and three total) Ambinder posts put "Joe The Plumber" in the headline. Seven minutes after the debate ended, Ambinder announced: "Tonight's winner: Joe the plumber."
Last night, Ambinder was perfectly willing to write during the debate: "Obama does seem acknowledge that Joe The Plumber would see his taxes go up."
Turns out that isn't really true. But now that people are pointing out that Wurzelbacher is a Republican who hates Social Security -- and who not only would not face a tax increase under Obama, he'd likely get a larger tax cut from Obama than he would from McCain -- well, suddenly, Marc Ambinder has heard enough about Joe The Plumber.
Maybe it's distracting him from trying to come up with evidence to support his claims that the media is paying more attention to Christopher Buckley than to ACORN.