Posts about Politics

Editing the Times

Here’s an exchange between Adam Nagourney of the Times and me over campaign coverage.

On Tuesday, I took out after Nagourney for his Times story presenting the impression that Obama is winning over Iowa youth even though the polls, which he quotes, do not back up that hypothesis. I posted a comment on his story (though it never showed up there) and also crossposted it here. Nagourney responded the next day (though being crazed with the Networked Journalism Summit, I had no time to reply until now). Here is his article and here my criticism (with my comment at the end). Here are his response to me and mine to him:

* * *

Hey Jeff:

Here’s my feeling on this: My job is about getting information out to the public, from what I see and learn on the campaign trail, and trying to put it in as much perspective as possible. In this case, it looks like something MIGHT be going on with Obama and younger voters, based on anecdotal evidence (turn-out at his rallies, conversations with younger voters, the make-up of his campaign staff), but also because his campaign is clearly trying to work it (the Iowa High School program is pretty neat.) To me, journalistically, I want to make sure I get that information out to readers – but with all the statistical and historical information that makes clear that this remains very speculative right now.. (Also, keep in mind, I wrote that for one of our Web columns, where we have more flexibility in voice and tone – hence the phrase, ‘polls aside.” — which was important I think in communicating to readers that this is not some breathless announcement story.)

The alternative would have been not to write anything at all, and sit back and feel like a jerk if Obama, say, sweeps through Iowa and New Hampshire and exit polls show it’s because it was because of a sudden surge of under-30 voters.

Hope that answers your question.

Adam

* * *

Adam,

Thanks so much for the reply.

Of course, it’s your job to get information out to the public. But it’s also your job to judge that information. You had an impression. But the polls simply didn’t back up that impression. So is that impression information? Is it news, worthy of running in the Times? And is covering your flank — so you don’t feel like a jerk, as you say — sufficient cause to shove this round peg into that square hole?

In any case, this remains a horse-race story and I’m among those who are tired of them and, indeed, think they can be a perilous addiction. For they are too much about betting, entertainment, and ego: covering one’s rear in hopes of being the one who called it right. But what value does that really give us? What does that tell us about the candidate? What knowledge or news does that provide to help us vote? Not much, I’d say.

I’d point you to this post, inspired by a Politico blog item that noted the syncopation between the polls and the media’s narrative: Clinton was ahead in the polls but Politico had the impression that national media’s narrative gave Obama the mo’. Now that all this coverage is digital and searchable, it’s not hard to test that hypothesis as I did here. Note also the six-month candidate coverage chart on Daylife (where, full disclosure, I am a partner); the service gathers and analyzes coverage from thousands of news sources. It shows that Clinton’s coverage has not broken away from Obama’s until last month. Media impression is only now catching up to voter reality.

So return to your story. Without the facts — and polls are about as close as we get — one is left (I was left) with the question: Why did you do the story? Seeking your motive is a reasonable question since you’re the guy who controls that news hole into which was shoved this dubious peg.

So if writing in a web column gives you more flexibility in voice and tone, then I say run with it. Be transparent. Bloggy, even. If Obama impresses you, say so. If you think his high-school program is really neat, then print that. Make that the reason for the story. For without that, we are left to wonder: Is this wishful thinking? Please tell us.

Now please allow me to speak more as a former editor than as a blogger and say that there are plenty of ways I think you could have attacked this story that wouldn’t have required the taffy stretching. A few ideas:

You could have focused in solely on that high-school program and reported the hell out of it, talking with the strategists who created it, the operatives who facilitated it, and the students who followed this Pied Piper and those who didn’t. Then I still would have seen the Obama campaign’s dogged pursuit of youth. I’d still like to know about the programs of the other candidates, though.

Or you could have gone to rallies for Obama and Clinton and done a census of age. It’s even something you could have crowdsourced: Get volunteers to ask 100 random, truly random people their age. Get a fact. Contrast that with the polls. Talk with the young people in both places. Tell me why they like either candidate. Why they don’t like the other. Let me hear them speak.

Or go to a mall and find 100 random youth yourself. Ask them for whom they’re voting and why and whether any actions of the campaigns have influenced them.

Or do a statistical analysis of past campaigns and show how much impact the youth vote had on victory since, say, 18-year-olds got the vote. Then look at the relative support of Clinton and Obama and explain why it is or isn’t wise for the Obama campaign to be going after youth.

Or poll young people about the issues and stands that matter to them — if, indeed, youth speak at all monolithically — and analyze the candidates’ stands next to that to see who should be more appealing (this approach having the fringe benefit of actually discussing a few issues in addition to the obvious, Iraq).

And if Iowa’s caucuses are, as you report, unlikely to be affected by the youth since they swing so old, then maybe picking another state might be more productive.

Journalistically, to paraphrase you, doesn’t replacing reportorial generalities and rhetorical questions with reported facts get more information out to readers and voters?

I’ll be blogging this, too. I don’t know why my comment didn’t end up attached to your story. If you with to reply, I’d hope you’d do so in one or the other of our comments.

– Jeff

[I should have added in my reply to him — in the interest of transparency — that I am likely to vote for Clinton.]

The Peter Pan of politics

Here is another example of either lazy or agenda-laded — or both — political reporting in the Times: Adam Nagourney’s exercise in apparent wishful thinking as he muses on Barack Obama attracting young voters. On Obama:

He has clearly struck a chord among younger voters. And his campaign has made what seems to be the most sophisticated effort of any of the Democrats to reach out to them, taking steps like sending recruiting teams to Iowa high schools and trying to ensure that New Hampshire college students who might be out of state on primary day get absentee ballots.

What will this mean in the end?

Now that’s a rhetorical question. Clearly, Nagorney doesn’t know and so one wonders why the story was done. The impression was certainly out there that Obama had younger supporters and that’s the premise of the story. But Nagourney’s first fact belies that:

The truth of the matter is that every four years – as sure as a sunset – stories appear about a surge of interest among younger voters in presidential politics, typically predicting a jump in turn-out that will benefit one campaign or another. It rarely turns out to be true: the percentage of voters under 30 in the total electorate was basically unchanged between 2000 and 2004– 17 percent, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls. Polls taken by The Times and CBS News last month suggest that there is no difference in the level of support between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton among younger Democratic voters, though they view Mr. Obama slightly more favorably.

One wonders again why the story was done, then. But Nagourney goes on to sell his now-questionable premise:

But could this finally be the year – and this the candidate – that produces the ever-expected burst of interest among younger voters? Polls aside, the kind of crowds Mr. Obama is drawing – and a walk through his campaign headquarters in Des Moines – certainly suggest that some young people have taken a strong interest in his candidacy.

Polls aside. Facts aside. History aside. Damnit, he’s determined to write this story, to push the image of Obama as the political Pied Piper. He moves to meaningless observations:

At 46, Mr. Obama has just the slightest streak of gray hair, no creases in his face and works out every day to keep trim. Democrats may debate whether his youthfulness makes it tough for him to come across as presidential; at the least, it means that he does not come across as parental, at least not to the newly voting age crowd.

The story is utterly uninformative. And I have to wonder whether there is an agenda here: another slap at frontrunner Clinton or an effort to boster the flagging Obama. In either case, I wish that we could have a dialogue with Nagourney over this story to ferret out the motive and method behind stories such as this.

I posted this comment on the story:

In one breath, you quote polls saying that there is essentially no difference between Obama and Clinton in youth’s support of them.

In the next breath, you try to argue that Obama is the youth candidate with little more to back up your contention — is it a wishful one? — than your vague, generalized observations about his hair and fitness and tactics, still unproven.

Why was this story written? What is the news here?

Even as . . .

Add this to your file of what’s wrong with newspaper coverage of presidential campaigns.

Today the Times reported that Hillary Cliinton beat Barack Obama in fundraising — in dollars and people. But they had to get in digs against — that’s what they call balance, you see — and they did it in this bullshit paragraph:

Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raising success came even as some Democratic elected officials continue to have concerns about her electability and the possibility that a Clinton candidacy next November would drag down fellow candidates for Congressional and state races.

Name those Democratic elected officials, please. There’s nothing else in the story quoting these people. There are no links online to the stories that say that. There’s no particular reason given why that is relevant in this story. A lot of things are happening “even as” this is happening.

Now I’m trying to get away from blog-v-msm, but I do think that if a blogger wrote this same report, he would likely have said, “I’m still concerned about Hillary’s electablility. . . .” And that where this really came from: the reporter or editor wanting to throw in that dig, believing it’s balance or just not wanting to give Hillary a positive story. So they hide behind those phrases: “even as . . .” and “some officials have . . .”

And then there’s this sentence:

Few analysts or Democratic officials predicted it, and several of them said yesterday that there was new pressure on him — and another top contender, former Senator John Edwards — to compete more aggressively with Mrs. Clinton.

Well, duh. What does that tell us that we couldn’t quite easily figure out ourselves?

And in the end, of course, none of this is about issues or doing the job of president. It’s a horse race story.

: By the way, I wonder why this story was suitable for over-the-fold treatment on page one of the Times but I couldn’t find it on the home page online and it wasn’t even above the fold on the politics page.

: Oh and about that electability, see this from the latest Washington Post poll, which shows stunning results for Clinton:

Despite rivals’ efforts to portray her as too polarizing to win the general election, a clear majority of those surveyed, 57 percent, said Clinton is the Democratic candidate with the best chance on Nov. 4, 2008. The percentage saying Clinton has the best shot at winning is up 14 points since June. By contrast, 20 percent think Edwards is most electable and 16 percent think Obama is, numbers that represent a huge blow to the “electability” argument rivals have sought to use against her.

Teaching politicians to be friends

Facebook is holding seminars in D.C. next week to teach politicos how to use the social network:

oin the Facebook Politics Team and Special Guests in a lively seminar about how Facebook and social media can be an integral part of your campaign and constituent strategy. Find out what you should start doing today to boost your campaigning and fundraising efforts, while connecting with your supporters on a deeper and more personal level.

May I propose a scholarship for the Giuliani campaign, who only just opened up his MySpace page to the public? (Facebook link here)

Hail the center

Well, look at this: I did read and am now linking to a NY Times op-ed column, because I agree with it and have been saying this for sometime, only not as well. David Brooks today debunks the power of netroots and endorses of the power of the center and Hillary Clinton’s dominance of it. That’s why Bill Clinton still holds a special spot in the admiration of many — because we respect the center. He writes:

The fact is, many Democratic politicians privately detest the netroots’ self-righteousness and bullying. They also know their party has a historic opportunity to pick up disaffected Republicans and moderates, so long as they don’t blow it by drifting into cuckoo land. They also know that a Democratic president is going to face challenges from Iran and elsewhere that are going to require hard-line, hawkish responses.

Finally, these Democrats understand their victory formula is not brain surgery. You have to be moderate on social issues, activist but not statist on domestic issues and hawkish on foreign policy. This time they’re not going to self-destructively deviate from that.

Both liberals and Republicans have an interest in exaggerating the netroots’ influence, but in reality that influence is surprisingly marginal, even among candidates for whom you’d think it would be strong.

My fear is that commentators equate the internet with netroots and will try to marginalize the large, large tree above those small roots.