2008/11/09

WaPo Ombudsman & campaign coverage

Deborah Howell, the Ombudsman for the Washington Post, feels really, really awful about the paper's election coverage. Why does she feel awful about it? She feels that the WaPo tilted its coverage to favor Barack Obama and to make John McCain look bad. She backs up her assertion essentially by bean-counting:

The op-ed page ran far more laudatory opinion pieces on Obama, 32, than on Sen. John McCain, 13. There were far more negative pieces (58) about McCain than there were about Obama (32), and Obama got the editorial board's endorsement. The Post has several conservative columnists, but not all were gung-ho about McCain.

Problem: Obama and McCain did not run similar campaigns! Comparing the two campaigns is an apples & oranges exercise. The demagoguery of McCain's Vice-Presidential running mate, Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin, was so extreme that the death threats made to Obama reached levels to where the Secret Service had to make the Obamas aware of them.

The Secret Service warned the Obama family in mid October that they had seen a dramatic increase in the number of threats against the Democratic candidate, coinciding with Mrs Palin's attacks.

Is it really fair or appropriate to do a bean-count to see how "biased" or "tilted" the WaPo's election coverage was without taking into account that the rhetoric coming from just one side was so demagogic, that it sounded so much like it was coming from a lynch mob, that the Secret Service was alarmed at the number of death threats that Palin's rhetoric was provoking?

And I'm sorry, but I really have to stick up for Palin here:

Irate John McCain aides, who blame Mrs Palin for losing the election, claim Mrs Palin took it upon herself to question Mr Obama's patriotism, before the line of attack had been cleared by Mr McCain.

Sorry, wrong answer!!! A presidential candidate is responsible for his campaign. Period! No ifs, ands or buts about it! That's why candidates say "I'm [so-and-so] and I approve this message" at the end of all of their campaign commercials. Palin has zero responsibility for her words, whether she decided to say them on her own or not. The campaign gives her the script that she speaks from, either on paper or via a teleprompter. Her job is to read the words given to her. She refuses to do the job, she gets fired (The campaign may be hopelessly incompetent, but they're still legally responsible). Absolutely no one is ever, under any circumstances, going to allow a partner in his or her campaign to just run off by herself and do her own thing. Ain't gonna happen.

McCain himself had to "dial it back" when a woman told him at a "Town Hall Meeting" that she was worried because she was convinced that Obama was an Arab. McCain snatched the microphone away from her and said that Obama was "a decent man" (And no, saying that Obama's "a decent man" doesn't really constitute an objection to the claim that he's an Arab). The inflammatory accusations were pulled back a bit.

Another problem with Howell's evaluation as to how well the WaPo did is how the paper did on "horse-race" stories versus "issues" stories:

The count was lopsided, with 1,295 horse-race stories and 594 issues stories.
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There were no broad stories on energy or science policy, and there were few on religion issues.

My feeling on "horse-race" stories is that well, any idiot can read a poll and there are at least half-a-dozen polling firms out there that do reasonably reliable work. Interpreting a poll to see what will happen next? That's far more a matter of art than science. Anyone who tells fortunes using palm reading, tarot cards or tea leaves is perfectly capable of (and probably has just as good a record at) making reasonably reliable guesses based on polling data.

What would I prefer the WaPo spend its time & resources on? That's easy. According to Bill Hamilton, assistant managing editor for politics, the paper is in the business of providing what they "were uniquely able to provide our audiences both in Washington and on the Web." Now, let's see, what can a large, well-funded, well-connected institution provide that, say, a blogger can't? Or what can it provide more easily than a lone blogger can? How about "broad stories on energy or science policy, [or] ... religion issues"?

In other words, the WaPo would serve the public interest much better by chucking at least three-quarters of the "horse-race" stories and concentrating more on "broad stories" on issues. I'm interested in seeing the WaPo concentrate on doing what it's good at. Let the bloggers and small papers do the "horse-race" stuff. The WaPo should concentrate on "issues" stories where they take a serious look at the issue, at each candidate's plan for dealing with the issue and for how well their plan is likely to work. Based on looking at a few Palin talks, I'd guess the McCain campaign wouldn't come off looking very good.

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