Iowa caucuses reveal news media lapses
Wednesday , January 04, 2012 - 2:28 PM
Iowa's 2012 Republican caucuses gave us either two winners or no winners at all, as in Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum virtually tied and Ron Paul finished just a whisker behind them. And in the only total that really matters, but was little mentioned, all three received seven of Iowa's Republican convention delegates.
But America's inexplicably traditional first voting told us something important, not really about those running for president but about those of us who cover them: When we don't really report, you can't really decide.
First, recall the wall-to-wall news coverage of Iowa's meaningless (except for political party money-making) Republican straw poll last August. As all the pols and their handlers learned decades ago, you can win it by spending more money to bus in and feed more of your own people who will vote for you. Last August, Michele Bachmann won. Tuesday night, she finished last among Iowa's real caucus combatants.
Second, we turn to what Americans most need from the news media: our journalistic skill and determination to go far beyond what the candidates are emphasizing to make the sale with voters. At least by examining their past deeds as deeply as we covered that meaningless straw poll.
Here, there were huge gaps in the news media's performance. The media focused for months only on the candidate du jour, which in this case meant the one Republican who was seen in the polls as being the top I'm-not-Romney candidate. So for months, the media mainly gave short shrift to the most unconventional candidate, Ron Paul. Until he rose in the polls. Even then, the coverage was scant.
Only in the last days did the media cover Paul's most potentially controversial positions. Never mind that these had been reported years and even decades ago. Only recently, The New Republic resurrected the newsletters that Paul published under his own name, from the 1970s into the 1990s, that contained many writings replete with racist references, smears against Martin Luther King Jr. and kind comments about white supremacist David Duke.
Last Sunday, CNN's Candy Crowley, who has proven herself the best of the Sunday TV talk show interrogators, questioned Paul about his past newsletters. Paul's standard response has been that he didn't write those newsletters and he has belatedly repudiated what they said. But Crowley didn't press him on the fact that he had let those newsletters continue saying these things for years.
Crowley did ask Paul about his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that marked the historic legal end to racial segregation. She sharply asked Paul about his 2004 House floor lone objection to a commemoration of that act, in which he said it infringed upon "individual liberty" and "the rights of private property." But when he gave a general response, she didn't follow up by specifically asking whether he preferred an America that still allowed private businesses to not do business with blacks, private restaurants not to serve blacks, private homeowners to not sell their homes to blacks.
And finally, even in the media's best work -- in those FactCheck and PolitiFact.com reports of candidate exaggerations, distortions and outright lies -- there are gaps. But these reports are usually buried on back pages. Also, the worst of the lies are treated as if they are humorous -- rated with four Pinocchios or a "Pants on Fire." Time out: A politician's lie to Americans is not a joking matter.
The enduring result of Iowa's caucus is its reminder that, politically and professionally, we still have a long way to go.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.