Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Fact-Checking Only the Left Cheek

Instapundit more-or-less recognized the work performed by Spinsanity, Salon, TAPPED, and The New Republic in pointing out that Bush's frequently-repeated comments that, during the 2000 campaign, he acknowledged his budget plan might not produce billions in surplus but instead might cause deficits in the event of a recession, war, or national emergency--and he got all three (the "trifecta"). (What a laugh riot, that guy!) Well, nobody can find any evidence of Bush saying that during the campaign, no matter how hard they've tried. Bush is simply saying something that isn't true, but to Mr. Reynolds, it apparently doesn't matter much:

I think the "trifecta" thing has had so little resonance with me because (as I've mentioned before) I sure thought I remembered Bush saying that. Apparently I'm wrong, though.

So that's what "the power of the blogosphere" means. "I sure thought I remembered Bush saying that," but nobody ever bothered to check, and now that someone else has checked, "[a]pparently I'm wrong." That's it. "We'll fact-check your ass--provided it's to the left of ours."

Imagine if Al Gore was going around the country saying something both demonstrably untrue and substantively important.

Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Next: The Secretariat-Affirmed Debate!

Another refugee to warmer climes from Johnstown, PA reacted to last week's column by noting that newspapers run "horse race" stories because they're more interesting to readers:

Newspapers run "horse race" stories because they are more interesting to the typical reader. After all, most fans would rather watch the two minutes the Kentucky Derby is actually run than watch the two hours leading up when they talk about training the horses and getting them ready to run and what might happen when the race starts. It's the way we're wired.

All too true. However, the newspapers then don't gripe that the horses are so focused on running the race that we never hear their views on jockey weights, track surfaces, grades of hay, or other important policy issues.

Monday, June 24, 2002

Which Came First, the Campaign Chicken or the Media Egg? (Part 2)

This column, which ran on June 16th, followed up on the June 9 dueling opinion pieces.

This particular column ran last Sunday, but I didn't get to see it--or write a column for yesterday--because the Coppersmith family (all but our too-young youngest child; maybe in two years) took a raft trip through the Grand Canyon for the past 8 days. We returned late Friday night, and I've got the bruises to prove it. When I walk to favor my banged-up knee, it plays havoc with my foot blisters, but at least all four of us missed the GI infection (thanks to Desert Pundit for the link; I only had some emails from a Colorado River runner listserv) that nailed a couple dozen boaters (including 4 in our party) in the Canyon this past week.

It's great to be home: flush toilets! The biggest kick, however, is being able to go into a room and close the door. Whoa.

East Valley Tribune, June 16, 2002

I don’t often take up Matt Salmon’s cause, but I do it today--to bite the hand that feeds me and prove a point about The Tribune’s political coverage.

Last Sunday, The Tribune editorial page, continuing its protestations that all this paper really, really wants is to cover politics seriously, threw down the gauntlet. The Tribune challenged campaigns to do something to let real campaign coverage begin. Announce important policy initiatives! Outline what you would do first, second, and third after taking office! Do something newsworthy!

Well, last month, the Salmon campaign released a collection of economic proposals called “Workforce 2010.” That plan may be wonderful or it may be terrible, but if you read only The Tribune, you simply wouldn’t know.

This paper isn’t alone; no media outlet has discussed the substance of the proposals. The Salmon campaign has gotten some press about the plan’s “bottom line,” its claim that Arizona will generate 500,000 new jobs over the next eight years.

They got much more press about a mistaken attribution, an overstated claim that University of Arizona President Peter Likins participated in its drafting. After all, that’s a typical “horse race” story, where a candidate posts a boring list of supporters on the web site and mistakenly includes Jane Dee Hull, then gets slammed by the governor for presumption.

(Actually, the real presumption is Hull’s--that her endorsement would help any candidate in 2002. Recent polls show Hull’s ratings as lower than Fife Symington’s during his criminal trial.)

So let’s review. Matt Salmon releases a 12-page economic proposal, and gets absolutely zero space in The Tribune. Salmon supporters (not the campaign, but does it really matter?) engineer a straw poll by East Valley chambers of commerce, and that made-for-media event rates as long a story as this paper runs on politics, plus a picture, plus the lead editorial two days later.

Newspapers don’t run horse race stories because there’s little else happening. Newspapers run horse race stories because they’re formulaic, impartial, and require nearly zero thought because they treat issues like tissues: two sides, no depth.

Substance, however, is hard. You have to know or learn something, or find trustworthy experts who don’t have a vested interest. You need to research facts and remember history. You also need lots of space to explain things, an increasingly rare commodity in the post-USA Today newspaper world.

In a perfect world, a campaign making any policy statement, “important” or “serious” or not, would have its claims and proposals first reported at face value. The opposing campaigns then would get an equal shot in the same article; they could tout their own, competing proposals or just shoot holes in the first campaign’s suggestions.

(It’s useful for voters to know if a responding campaign’s first, instinctive response is positive or negative. People say they want positive, but most times, negative is more powerful.)

Then comes the really tough part. A truly good newspaper would “connect the dots,” in today’s overworked phrase, between the competing campaign statements. Is 500,000 new jobs over eight years a lot in a state the size of Arizona today? How many jobs were created here during the Clinton administration? Do state government policies make any difference in job creation, or are they simply drowned out by national economic trends?

Do the policies proposed add up to anything close to the promised result, or is the campaign relying on fluff and sound bites, like wanting to balance the state budget by eliminating the sales tax exemption on soda pop?

If last Sunday’s Tribune editorial were a campaign promise, Matt Salmon’s recent experience showed that it was already broken before it was made. But it’s not too late, oh Tribune! Stop griping about the campaigns--and please get to work.

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

LiberalDesert Takes a Vacation

My family and I are taking a raft trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. There's no phone, no email, and no Internet, so there will be no new posts here until June 24.

Monday, June 10, 2002

Which Came First, the Campaign Chicken or the Media Egg?

The Trib ran an editorial last Thursday (I can't find a free link), griping that the candidates in this fall's gubernatorial election weren't doing anything substantive, and it's the candidates' fault. Mark Scarp's editorial (Mark filled in for Bob Schuster while Bob was on vacation last week) ran the morning after I appeared with Chuck Coughlin on KAET's Horizon show, and Chuck complained that the Matt Salmon campaign couldn't get any press about their economic plan but could get publicity about the bogus East Valley Chambers of Commerce "straw poll" exercise. So, of course, the Tribune gave the straw poll as big a story as anything they've run on state politics this year, with a picture, and then the Thursday editorial, but if they've run anything substantive about the Salmon economic plan (such as it is--that's a topic for another day), I've missed it.

The Trib then responded to my piece, on the same day, basically saying that they'll open the op-ed page to the campaigns, and will give them chances to talk substance, but aren't in the business of "making" news. You can read the responding Sunday editorial here. (Of course, after saying that they won't make news, Mark then suggested a topic for candidates to write about, "what they would do first, second and third in their first 100 days in office." It's a fine line, apparently.)

The editorial reminded me of a tactic I've recommended to campaigns in the past--the Boring Speech of the Month. Editorial writers always complain that campaigns aren't discussing the real issues. It's a hardy perennial, part of our American love of democracy in the abstract but clear disdain for anybody actually running for office. So I suggest that candidates find some poor luncheon organization (they're always looking for speakers, but just to be nice I'd warn them in advance about the substantive talk, and do the Q&A first before you put the audience to sleep) and deliver a solid, substantive, and undoubtedly boring speech on an important policy topic.

The candidate isn't likely to convince anybody with the speech, but it could be billed in campaign press releases as a substantive policy speech--and, more importantly, the campaign would send a copy of the speech to the full membership of the editorial boards of the local newspapers. Nobody at the paper will read the speech, and nothing in such a speech will ultimately make a difference with the newspaper's coverage or endorsements, but if the campaign sends one of these "white papers" every 3-4 weeks during the boring, early stages of the campaign--when nothing is going on but fund-raising anyway--at least the editorialists can't claim that this particular candidate isn't talking about substance. It then becomes the newspaper's failure to cover substance, because it's boring, but it eliminates one of the typical, and apparently mandatory, shots at every candidate.

Are you listening, Craig Columbus? Craig is a candidate for Congress in CD-5, whom I'm helping and who is so like me in my first campaign that it makes my teeth hurt. His stump speech is like mine--I'd better talk about this seventh policy initiative because I just know there's somebody in this room who may still have some doubt after listening merely to the first six! Craig had the best "top rejected campaign slogan" for his campaign: "Vote for me, or I'll come to your house and explain my 192-page economic plan in excruciating detail!" Craig, you should just abuse the Tribune with substance.

I can't remember where I read the Pavarotti line; I tried to search for it but came up empty, so I couldn't give credit but it's a great joke.

East Valley Tribune, June 9, 2002

Thursday’s Tribune lead editorial griped that the various campaigns for governor just aren’t doing enough to make noise (excuse me, debate the issues). This criticism reminds me of one wag’s jest about Luciano Pavarotti complaining about the size of a restaurant’s portions: He may have a point, but he’s not the guy to make it.

After all, if a newspaper thinks more attention should be paid to election issues, run the darn stories. While other states had vigorous primary campaigns leading up to Election Day last Tuesday, nothing’s happening here because the primary election is still three months away.

Elections aren’t like the baseball standings; a win in a June poll counts much, much less than a win in November. Demanding campaigns spend money three months before the primary, before most voters become remotely interested, is not just foolish, but counterproductive. Money spent now would have little effect, and becomes unavailable for the 30 days before the election, when early voting begins--shortened this year to 20 days.

To have an earlier discussion of issues, move the primary election from September to May. Holding the election before the heat starts, instead of during the dog days of late summer, should increase turnout and start the debate sooner. But it’ll never happen, because a late, low-turnout primary benefits incumbents, who also could be disadvantaged because the Legislature wouldn’t adjourn until nearly Election Day.

So, assuming our late primary date stays, if this newspaper wants more discussion of issues, it can--ahem--just do it. Every political campaign I’ve ever been around complains not about too much coverage, but about not enough coverage, much less in-depth issue coverage.

Each week, The Tribune could give the candidates--not just for governor, but other statewide and local offices, too--prominent space to write 200-300 words discussing a particular issue before the debates and attack ads begin. Print schedules of where people can go to see the various candidates speak (without an admission charge!) during the coming weeks. Publish issue statements available on campaign Web sites, and those sites' addresses. Run stories that don’t discuss either fundraising or polling.

That’s really what Clean Elections has done--eliminated a half-dozen easy, hack stories based on campaign finance reports. The delay while candidates await funding hasn’t slowed the number of press releases or public events (other than fund-raisers, usually closed to the nonpaying public anyway) compared with 1998 or 2000.

It has prevented many campaigns from purchasing early polls--depriving lazy reporters of additional easy “horse race” stories. Sheesh, without fundraising and without polls, there are only issues left, and apparently nobody wants to write about that.

I do predict that serious, issue-laden stuff will be among the least-read parts of the paper, at least until closer to Election Day. This paper’s market research is undoubtedly similar to national survey and focus-group data showing that while people may say that want more serious and substantive political coverage, they don’t actually read it until just before the election--and that date keeps getting later each cycle.

But it’s rank hypocrisy to attack campaigns for not firing before they see the whites of the voters’ eyes when this newspaper could be, and should be, asking questions, soliciting statements, and printing candidate statements about issues this paper wants discussed, as well as statements on the issues a campaign wants to discuss--and, just maybe, what issues a candidate wants the opposition to address.

Don’t blame the campaigns. Every candidate would jump at the chance to grab a fair forum, where ideas different from The Tribune’s official policy could be discussed without slanting or snide comments. If there’s a problem, this newspaper has the power to fix it. Today.

Friday, June 07, 2002

Department of Self-Indulgence--no, wait, it's the My Department of Self-Indulgence

Tempe International Triathlon photographs here, here, and here. Links available until 7/5/02.

Monday, June 03, 2002

Here's the take from The Onion on publicly-funded stadiums. I especially like the "retractable rotunda for daytime sessions," and that the proposed new Capitol "would have 55 more luxury boxes than the current building."
Ye gods--the stadium, again?

Yes, this week's column was, yet again, the new NFL stadium, which is going to go to a public vote in Mesa, the host city. Two different groups filed separate petitions to refer the City Council's approval of the Mesa site (and accompanying public expenditures) to the voters this week, so what the heck--why not beat this particular drum again? We'll see if anyone picks up on the "Incompetent Redistricting Commission" line.


A couple of thousand petition signatures have put the new Cardinals stadium in limbo. If enough prove valid, Mesa must hold a referendum on the proposed stadium site. The election would occur in September, but the Tourism and Sports Authority must select a site that month, or else the whole deal--including our new tourism taxes--goes before Maricopa County voters again.

This development frustrates The Tribune enormously. A small minority of frightened, backward-looking, and parochial nay-sayers willfully ignores the benefits to the larger community. Problem is, these folks are merely following the weakened-government, market-worshipping, and highly individualistic libertarianism that dominates Arizona politics and, yes, The Tribune editorial and op-ed pages. It’s only when these petition-gatherers apply that philosophy to the new stadium--our quaint local version of the steel tariffs and bloated farm bill--that it’s a Big Problem.

One of these pages’ continuing themes is that government must shrink and play less of a role in the economy. This paper supports remarkable, even radical, changes in healthcare finance and electricity. Even with life’s very necessities, The Tribune trusts the market unquestioningly, urging government out of way immediately, if not sooner.

Except for pro sports, where we simply must accept the world as it is. As the vast majority (but, remember, not all) of teams get taxpayer-subsidized facilities, our team needs one, too. We seek a brave new libertarian world for electricity or healthcare, but for the NFL, we’re slaves to the status quo.

The Mesa petition signers, whether consciously or not, are fighting for smaller government--who needs a Tourism and Sports Authority, anyway? They want government out of the entertainment business--can’t the private sector provide our amusements? Are they being small-minded, or does The Tribune’s philosophy not apply just to sports?

These pages also support lower taxes--name the tax, it should be lower. So with tourism crippled since Sept. 11, with taxes allegedly too high generally, why keep these new, higher taxes on tourists?

The Mesa referendum should give Maricopa County voters a chance to cut taxes on a key Arizona industry. The petition signers, whether meaning to or not, are fighting for lower taxes, which is usually a Good Thing here. Are they really frightened and backward-looking--or is there a pro football exception to The Tribune’s beliefs?

And while The Tribune has been mostly silent on this issue, the political elite in this state has no problem with our late, low-turnout primary election and overwhelmingly one-sided legislative and congressional districts. Districts, both in the past and this fall, thanks to the IRC--the Incompetent Redistricting Commission--are overwhelmingly either strongly Democratic or strongly Republican, but only rarely competitive.

Thus, our political leadership has no problem with virtually all elections being settled in the majority party’s primary, where only a couple thousand voters determine the winner. Absent getting indicted, either in court for criminal activity or on the front page for political stupidity (welcome back, Jeff Groscost!), the majority party nominee wins.

People have no problem with a small number of voters calling the shots for the vast majority--except when it comes to the stadium, when it’s outrageous that a small number of voters may call the shots for the vast majority. It’s that football exception again, I guess.

Of all things deserving an exception from principle, the stadium should come last. Proponents and hired-gun consultants have abandoned trying to claim any economic benefits. The justifications are all psychological and emotional now--we’ll feel major league! To which those of us who believe in a role for government and investment in community say, couldn’t we save it for more important stuff?

Maybe hard cases make bad law. But if your philosophy can’t handle an easy case like the stadium, it’s not a hard case. It’s a bad philosophy.