Reading The New York Times' coverage of the conservative Values Voter Summit held in Washington, D.C., this past weekend, where Republican presidential contenders paraded before evangelical activists, it was clear who the Times thought was the star of the event: Rudy Giuliani.
In the paper's front-page article, it was Giuliani's name that adorned the headline and that anchored the first sentence, it was Giuliani's image that appeared in the article, and it was Giuliani's speech that was excerpted. And at the newspaper's website, it was Giuliani's Values Voter speech that was available in video form. He was the only GOP candidate to receive that kind of all-hands-on-deck weekend coverage from the Times.
So how did Giuliani do in the Values Voter Summit's highly anticipated straw poll? He came in next-to-last, with just 2 percent of the final vote, trailing badly behind "Undecided."
It's hard to think of a more memorable recent instance when a front-running White House candidate was so thoroughly embarrassed on the national stage. But that certainly was not the story The New York Times was telling over the weekend. Rather than putting Giuliani's poor showing in proper context -- the way so many other news organizations did -- the Paper of Record seemed to do its best to disguise Giuliani's painfully public belly-flop.
Indeed, the Times' news account could have been written by Giuliani's communications team, emphasizing how the candidate courageously came to face his most distrusting critics and how, through the power of "direct talk," he (allegedly) won them over. That's great spin. It just didn't reflect reality. And neither did the Times' reporting.
It's well documented that Giuliani, the thrice-married former New York City mayor who is seen as a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights, has a problem appealing to evangelicals, a crucial voting block within the GOP. The hostility from social conservatives toward the Republican front-runner has become so pronounced that there has been talk within the evangelical circles of backing a third-party candidate if Giuliani lands the GOP nomination.
And that's why Giuliani's appearance at the right-wing summit had been so widely previewed. "Saturday's appearance by Giuliani -- the most anticipated event of the weekend conference -- marked a crucial moment for his presidential campaign and for the conservative evangelical movement," wrote the Los Angeles Times. Other news organizations also piled on the adjectives, describing Giuliani's speech as perhaps a defining moment in the Republican primary season.
And presumably that's why The New York Times ran its summit dispatch above the fold on the front page of Sunday's paper. This was the print edition headline:
Religious Right Divides Its Vote
At Meeting, 2 Are Close -- Giuliani is Praised
The "2" referred to Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who finished a close one-two in the straw poll. Yet neither man was mentioned by name in The New York Times headline, and neither man was mentioned in the article's opening sentence. Giuliani, however, was. Notice also that Giuliani was singled out for distinction in the headline for drawing "praise."
How many people were quoted in The New York Times article actually praising Giuliani's speech? One.
Now, I'm guessing that if a New York Times reporter had been working on a Values Voter article that focused more on Romney or Huckabee or any of the other candidates, that the reporter could have found "praise" for that candidate among those attending the summit. So why, simply because one person out of 2,200 in attendance offered Giuliani a compliment for a speech that landed him a next-to-last place straw poll finish, did the Times consider that significant enough to tout in the headline? All it did was add to the Times' misleading perception that Giuliani had scored some sort a victory at the Values Voter Summit. He did not.
Meanwhile, according to The New York Times, despite concerns about his candidacy, the very conservative crowd members gave Giuliani a "standing ovation" at the conclusion of his speech. By contrast, the less booster-ish Los Angeles Times reported the enthusiastic response for Giuliani was less dramatic and less widespread: "Some stood to clap as he concluded his 40-minute address." And Time magazine's political blog, Swampland, described Giuliani's speech as being "somewhat tepidly received."
As for the final straw-poll tally, Giuliani won a microscopic 107 votes out of the nearly 6,000 cast by Family Research Council members; less than 2 percent. Giuliani came in a distant eighth, far behind anti-war crusader Ron Paul, and in back of B-listers Sam Brownback (who is no longer is even a candidate), Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, and "Undecided," which received three times Giuliani's count.
It's tough to put a shine on a turd like that, but The New York Times seemed to try its best, mostly by downplaying the poll results. For instance, the Times article, in the third sentence, immediately raised questions about how the vote was conducted, leaving doubts about the importance of the tally, which was a Giuliani camp talking point all weekend long. Instead of letting the vote speak for itself, the Times leaned more heavily on anecdotal evidence to suggest attendees were swayed by Giuliani's speech (i.e. "Praise").
Note this Times passage: "Whatever the outcome of the weekend, Mr. Giuliani's appearance was one of the most anticipated moments of the campaign."
"Whatever the outcome"? Wasn't the outcome -- the straw poll -- the whole point of the weekend exercise? Wasn't that the news?
One of the summit's straw poll peculiarities was that Family Research Council members had the choice of voting online weeks, or even months, before the conference took place, or voting in-person while attending the candidate confab at the Washington Hilton. Giuliani got crushed in the online voting, picking up the paltry 2 percent of the vote. But there was hope for his campaign that his speech might be able to sway activists who heard him in person. And rather than serving as a barometer of which campaign could marshal forces to stuff the cyber ballot box, the on-site vote would reflect which candidate the activists preferred in person. The account provided by the Times certainly left readers with the impression that Giuliani changed some Values Voter minds, or "soften[ed] their opposition to him," thanks to his "earnest appeal for acceptance."
So how did Giuliani do among the conference voters who cast their ballots after they listened to the speech? Readers of the Times newspaper were never informed of this, but Giuliani got trounced there as well. Just 60 people voted for Giuliani after hearing his address; 60 out of 952 votes cast on-site. (Another 600 attendees voted online, and Giuliani did no better among them.)
For context, consider that Fred Thompson, whose Values Voter speech was roundly criticized as being flat and uninspiring, won 150 in-person votes. (Huckabee, a Baptist minister who wowed the conference with his Bible-quoting speech, won the in-person vote handily, picking up 51 percent of those votes.)
Just how badly did Giuliani do over the weekend at the religious right summit? As part of the straw poll, Family Research Council members were also asked which candidate, from either party, would be the "least unacceptable" to them. Not surprisingly Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) won that conservative contest easily. What was shocking was that Giuliani came in second (9.2 percent), ahead of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (4.8 percent). Meaning, evangelical Republicans would rather see Obama elected president before Giuliani. That's how little they think of Giuliani. (Also note that a percentage of those "least acceptable" votes were cast after Giuliani spoke.)
And no, the Times never printed the embarrassing "least acceptable" straw poll results in its article about Giuliani's Values Voter appearance. There was however, a reference to the results at the Times' political blog, The Caucus. But in a bout of twisted logic the Times claimed the "least acceptable" results were part of a larger problem facing Romney, not Giuliani.
From the Caucus:
There is a level of hostility towards Mr. Romney among some conservatives that must be acknowledged. It was apparent in a sampling of interviews, which were hardly scientific but which seemed to reveal some of the feelings of those who attended this weekend.
So even though he won the online straw vote, it was Romney, according to the Times, who faced a real hostility over the weekend, not Giuliani who barely registered in the polling results.
Then came the real head-scratcher:
Mr. Romney certainly has his supporters, but he also has his vociferous detractors. Consider the results for a second poll question put to voters asking them which of the candidates would be "least acceptable" to them.
The Times blog then detailed how Giuliani came in second in the "least acceptable" vote and how Romney came in tied in fifth. But how on earth did that prove Romney faced an unusual "level of hostility" from "vociferous detractors" when Giuliani was deemed for less acceptable than Romney?
It's baffling as to why the Times was in such a Values Voter fog over the weekend. Most of the other mainstream reporters who covered the convention got the story right.
The Chicago Tribune got it right: "The results of this conference of Christian conservatives serve as a stark rebuke to the Republican Party's front-running candidate for president in national polling, Rudolph Giuliani."
Newsday got it right: "Rudy Giuliani offered himself to religious conservatives Saturday as a flawed but reverent man. ... Yet an unscientific straw poll coinciding with the event amounted to a potent rebuke of Giuliani's argument."
Even the international press got it right. France's AFP news service: "Several thousand Christian conservative voters rebuffed an olive branch from Republican White House hopeful Rudolph Giuliani Saturday, over his support for abortion rights."
There really wasn't much mystery involved or many gray areas that needed to be deciphered: Giuliani faced his toughest GOP critics during a pivotal campaign juncture and then suffered a wholesale rejection. When a high-profile candidate garners 2 percent of any straw poll and trails badly behind "Undecided," that means he was rejected.
The Times simply preferred to tell a different tale.