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.

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