August 27, 2003

When No News Becomes Badly Reported News

Robert Garcia Tagorda, who writes the Priorities & Frivolities blog, dissects a San Francisco Chronicle story about Arnold Schwarzenegger and finds a lead that outran the facts.

The Chronicle reported Tuesday: "GOP gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger told a conservative talk radio host Monday that he would be 'going to Sacramento as an independent,' a statement certain to enrage Republican loyalists who have been reluctant to endorse a moderate." (Emphasis added.)

Tagorda went to the tape of the interview (at the ninth minute) and concluded that the Chronicle took Schwarzenegger's comments out of context. After listening to the tape, I agree. Here's what he said, in part, in response to a statement by radio host Hugh Hewitt about being beholden to special interests:

" like I said to my wife, I'm more than happy to give up my movies and the monies and the millions of dollars that I could make instead, and all this and that -- the best life anyone can dream of. I want to clean up this mess because I am going up there to Sacramento as an independent. I go up there -- I'm not indebted to anyone."

Later, Dan Weintraub, who writes the California Insider for the Sacramento Bee, dismissed the Chron's version of the interview as "breathing hard here over basically nothing." He writes:

"The Chron kicked up a storm this morning with its report on Arnold's interview with Hugh Hewitt, suggesting that Schwarzenegger's vow to be "independent" was an attempt to distance himself from the Republican Party. The campaign tried to set the paper straight, noting that what he said was that he would be independent of the special interests -- but this was portrayed as damage control. I found it odd that the story's lead paragraph says Arnold's comments are "certain to enrage Republican loyalists" but then quotes no such animals in its story."

Misrepresentative political writing occurs regularly during horse-race campaign coverage as reporters struggle to put dramatic leads on stories about ordinary events.

The Chronicle's Schwarzenegger story is a case in point. The 27-paragraph story was a wrap-up, encompassing the Schwarzenegger interview (12 graphs, of which the independent charge and rebuttal filled six), a response from the governor's office (two graphs), a budget-balancing plan from ex-candidate Bill Simon (12 graphs), an endorsement of state Sen. Tom McClintock by a conservative caucus (three graphs) and a concluding comment from Schwarzenegger about Simon's withdrawal from the campaign (three graphs).

How would you like to write a lede on that story - especially knowing it's going to run atop the front page? The need to make news from no news (why report the economic plan of someone who has already left the race?) is a recipe for overreaching.

The Chronicle has done well covering the recall (particularly tracking donations), but the traditional daily campaign wrap-up story has outlived whatever usefulness it once had. If the Chronicle and other newspapers feel a need to record every blip on the political radar, then these non-events and self-serving interviews could be published as bulleted lists, freeing up reporters and newsprint for more serious journalism.

 San Francisco Chronicle Candidate says he'd govern as an independent
 Dan Weintraub Depends on your definition of the word 'independent'

Posted by Tim Porter at August 27, 2003 09:37 AM

Thanks for the vindication!

Posted by: Robert Garcia Tagorda on August 27, 2003 02:47 PM

I can only offer agreement. Vindication is going to have to come from a higher authority.

Posted by: Tim Porter on August 27, 2003 03:56 PM
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