A reporter’s job is to report the news. This includes determining what news is worth covering. But has it really ever been the job of reporters to be the sole determiners of what should be news? Is this proper journalism?
No matter how you cut it, Ron Paul almost winning the Iowa Straw Poll is news. In fact, only 152 votes separated Paul and winner Michele Bachmann. (For the record, I’m a paid blogger for Paul’s presidential campaign.)
For those who disagree, simply try switching out Paul’s name with other GOP presidential candidates. “Rick Santorum almost wins Iowa Straw Poll.” In such a scenario, we don’t have to guess what type of media treatment Santorum would receive because we already know — as the former senator’s relatively weak fourth place showing continues to be portrayed as a “surge” for his campaign. Imagine the headline “Tim Pawlenty almost wins Iowa Straw Poll.” This would be big news, as the former Minnesota governor was touted as a frontrunner by the media from the moment he entered the race despite consistent bad polling and a lack of voter interest.
Paul garnered nearly a third of the almost 17,000 straw poll votes cast, and yet he’s still an afterthought. Pawlenty chews on a piece of straw in front of three people and it’s a major media event. In fact, Pawlenty’s departure from the race post-Iowa received more coverage than Paul’s near victory.
It wasn’t enough for reporters that actual flesh-and-blood voters really didn’t like Pawlenty — the press had already determined that people “should” or “would” like him, based on their own perceptions of electability. Similarly, in 2008, the chattering class determined that Rudy Giuliani looked good on paper and was the man to beat in the GOP presidential primaries — that is, unless the obviously formidable Fred Thompson entered the race. Neither candidate amounted to much, and the man whose campaign was considered all-but-dead — John McCain — would go on to win the Republican nomination.
Discussing the lack of Paul coverage the day after the straw poll, CNN’s Howard Kurtz explained the media’s kingmaker role, saying “We are in the business of kicking candidates out of the race.”
But kicking them out based on what? Politico’s Roger Simon vocally disagreed with Kurtz on CNN: “(Paul) lost to Michele Bachmann by nine-tenths of one percentage point. In a straw poll that isn’t supposed to pick winners but is supposed to tell us which way the wind is blowing, that’s as good as a win. So we had a tie for first, but where is he on the morning shows this morning? Where are all the stories analyzing what it means that Ron Paul essentially tied for first place in Ames?”
Kurtz questioned: “And the reason that he’s essentially being ignored is?”
Replied Simon: “The media doesn’t believe that Ron Paul has a hoot-in-hell’s chance of winning the Iowa Caucuses, winning the Republican nomination, winning the presidency, so we’re going to ignore him.”
Kurtz is correct that there are conventional parameters to politics that allow pundits to separate the wheat from the chaff. But Simon is correct to point out that one of those conventional parameters has always been the Iowa Straw Poll. If Michele Bachmann’s victory is of note, then so is Paul’s essentially identical performance. If 1,657 votes means Santorum is “surging,” then the Paul campaign must be on fire considering he received nearly triple that amount.
That an unconventional candidate had an unusually good showing in a strictly Iowa-based contest might have been a proper way to cover this story. That Paul was proving to be an enduring force against everyone’s expectations would have also been reasonable coverage. But there is little excuse for not covering someone simply because their success defies the conventional wisdom.
And therein lies the mainstream media’s current dilemma and delusion.
We are living through one of the most unconventional periods in American politics. The same old media insists on playing by the same old rules, while those rules are being unceremoniously discarded every day. Establishment pundits now fretfully wonder how the Tea Party influences Washington budget debates, how Capitol Hill veterans get picked off by political newbies, and why the “respectable” center is no longer holding.
Reporting the news means telling a story. The media story for the 2012 election includes everyone from Sarah Palin to Donald Trump, political celebrities who make good characters, and telling any good story requires an interesting cast. The Christian Science Monitor explains: “The media are puzzled by how Paul fits into the Republican primary picture … See, reporters like to reduce candidates to easily labeled boxes. Mr. Romney is the front-runner, Rick Perry the Southern hope, Michele Bachmann the Tea Party queen, and so forth. Paul does not easily fit any of these boxes.”
The real story that continues to unfold week is that after Ron Paul’s unexpected success in the Iowa Straw Poll, most reporters simply decided not to do their primary job of reporting the news — and they know it.
Jack Hunter is the official campaign blogger for GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, and he co-wrote Rand Paul’s The Tea Party Goes to Washington.