A reporter’s job is to report the news. This includes determining what news is worth covering. But should reporters be the sole arbiters of what should be news?
No matter how you cut it, Ron Paul almost winning the Ames Straw Poll is news (he came in second place, just 152 votes behind the winner, Michele Bachmann). For those who disagree, simply imagine how the media would have reacted if another GOP presidential candidate — say, Rick Santorum — had almost won the Ames Straw Poll. Actually, we don’t have to guess how they would have reacted because we already know, as the former senator’s relatively weak fourth-place showing continues to be portrayed as a “surge” for his campaign. And imagine if Tim Pawlenty had almost won the Ames Straw Poll. That would have been big news, as the former Minnesota governor was touted as a frontrunner by the media from the moment he entered the race despite voters’ lack of interest in his campaign.
When Paul garners nearly a third of the almost 17,000 votes cast in the Ames Straw Poll, the media yawns. But when Pawlenty chews on a piece of straw in front of three people, it’s a major media event. In fact, Pawlenty’s post-Ames departure from the race received more coverage than Paul’s near-victory.
For reporters, it wasn’t enough that actual flesh-and-blood voters didn’t really like Pawlenty. Reporters 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, went on to win the Republican nomination.
The day after the Ames Straw Poll, CNN’s Howard Kurtz discussed the lack of Paul coverage on his show. He 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: “[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?”
“And the reason that he’s essentially being ignored is?” Kurtz asked.
“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,” Simon replied. “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 the Ames Straw Poll has always been one of those conventional parameters. 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 Paul’s campaign must be on fire considering he received nearly triple that amount.
Noting 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. It would have also been appropriate to cover the fact that Paul, contrary to everyone’s expectations, is proving to be an enduring force in Republican politics. But there is little excuse for not covering someone simply because that person’s success defies the conventional wisdom.
We are currently living through one of the most unconventional periods in the history of 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. All good stories have interesting casts.
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.”
Telling a good story also requires a consistent narrative. Because Paul does not neatly fit into the media’s pre-determined cast of characters, his success throws the entire narrative off-script. For many, Paul nearly winning in Iowa is akin to Luke Skywalker appearing in “The Godfather.” Things like this aren’t supposed to happen — and by disrupting the overall narrative, Paul’s presence makes it harder to engage in the storytelling aspect of reporting.
The real story is that after Ron Paul’s unexpected success in the Ames Straw Poll, most reporters simply decided not to do their primary job: report the news. And they know it.
Jack Hunter writes at the “Paulitical Ticker,” where he is the official Ron Paul 2012 campaign blogger.