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.

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