How reporters can beat the convention-hall wisdom

Ron Paul supporters in Tampa earlier this week.

This commentary also appears at the Huffington Post.

The media — all 15,000-plus reporters, photographers, editors, producers and assorted hangers-on who’ve descended on this unlovely, brutally humid old city — are having a nervous breakdown. And you’re invited to watch.

With the Republican National Convention making no news, and with the Democratic convention destined to be similarly vacuous, it seems the only story media people are talking about is the fact that there’s no story.

I wrote those words 12 years ago in Philadelphia, where I was covering the nomination of George W. Bush for the Boston Phoenix. If anything, the ennui that has come to permeate our national political conventions has grown even more pronounced since then. Nothing newsworthy will take place inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum this week or at Bank of America Forum in Charlotte, N.C., the following week.

But, once again, some 15,000 members of the media have showed up anyway, and most of them will be covering the same non-story. As the noted media observer Jeff Jarvis wrote on his blog, Buzz Machine, the financially strapped news business is spending some $60 million to attend two conventions even while cutting far more important coverage elsewhere. Jarvis continued:

Note that even while newspapers and news organizations have shrunken drastically, we are sending the same number of journalists to the conventions that we sent in 2008 and 2004. Why? Editorial ego: It’s fun to be there, in the pack. It’s fun for a paper or station to say, “We have our man/woman in Tampa/Charlotte.” Well goody for you. It’s a waste.

Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, way too many journalists are attending the conventions, and many if not most of the folks carrying press credentials this week should have stayed home. But I never found any shortage of news at the four national conventions I covered from 1996 to 2004. The secret — and it’s really no secret at all — is to get out of the hall and look for stories. I was a reporter for the Phoenix, an alternative weekly, during those years, so leaving the media pack behind wasn’t just tolerated; it was required.

In 1996, when I covered the Republican convention in San Diego, I was one of a surprisingly small group of reporters who took a bus to a rally at which Pat Buchanan made his last stand. No doubt other journalists were afraid of missing out on even a moment of Dole-Kemp mania.

In 2000, covering the Republicans in Philadelphia and the Democrats in Los Angeles, I followed protesters around the city streets and reported on two “Shadow Conventions” — left-leaning events organized by Arianna Huffington, who had only recently moved from the conservative to the progressive side of the political spectrum.

At the Democratic convention in 2004, on my home turf in Boston, I skipped Barack Obama’s keynote address because I was writing on deadline. So what? Yes, I missed a bit of history, but it’s not as though his speech wasn’t covered. What mattered was that my fellow Phoenix reporters and I went looking for news outside the building — and found plenty of it, from a meeting of gay and lesbian Democrats to a church service/rally in honor of the late senator Paul Wellstone, from demonstrations in the streets to panel discussions on the sad state of political journalism.

I have little doubt that Jeff Jarvis will be proven right, although there will be a few honorable exceptions. But it doesn’t have to be that way. All the media have to do is get off their collective rear ends and go looking for news. (And let me give a plug to David Bernstein and Chris Faraone, who are heading up the Phoenix’s Tampa coverage.)

I’ll close here as I did in Philadelphia in 2000:

Sure, the media will cover the horse race — who’s up, who’s down, who’s gaining, who’s losing — as well as the accusations and responses, the biographical retrospectives, and the gotchas. That’s all valuable stuff.

But they’ll almost certainly miss the biggest political story of all: the profound disconnect between average citizens and their elected officials…. A sign at the Shadow Convention put it best: “We Can Only Vote Every Four Years; Money Votes Every Day.”

It’s a story the media could have tried to cover during convention week, but — with rare exceptions — they didn’t even try. Instead, the story coming out of Philadelphia was that there was no story. There was. If journalists would start focusing more on the public’s alienation and less on their own, maybe they could start to tell it.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Making it on his own — with a little help

In the Boston Herald, columnist Jessica Heslam writes that Brian Maloney, the owner of the Roxbury trucking company that Mitt Romney visited yesterday, made it without any help from anybody, dadgummit:

The government didn’t help — at all. No tax breaks. No “Good guy, Brian.” Just hard work did that and a few other dedicated people that came along with me. Who’s going to pay for Obamacare?

In the Boston Globe, Callum Borchers reports:

Maloney founded his company as an auto body shop in Cambridge in 1966, while pursuing an MBA at Boston College. In the late 1970s, according to a 1986 Globe profile of the business, “he approached Boston city officials because a preferential bank loan was possible if his firm relocated to the Crosstown Industrial Park,” where Middlesex Truck & Coach remains to this day.

In its first year at the new location, Maloney’s company accepted a $560,000 federal government contract to overhaul 10 buses. Within a half-decade of the move, Maloney reported, his company had quintupled its annual revenue.

And political analyst Jon Keller of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) coaxes a rather different quote out of Maloney:

The only way I was able to come here, because I had no money, was with an industrial revenue bond.

That would be a government industrial revenue bond.

No one would question the hard work and dedication Maloney put into building his business. The only point President Obama was trying to make — and which Romney is now distorting beyond recognition — is that we’re all part of a larger community, and even the most successful among us didn’t make it entirely on our own. As Obama put it, “There’s no question your mom and dad, your school teachers, the people that provide roads, the fire, the police. A lot of people help.”

Oh, wait — sorry. That was Romney.

Maloney’s sincerity aside, he turns out not to be the best spokesman for the I-made-it-alone argument. Then again, Joe the Plumber’s name wasn’t Joe, and he wasn’t a plumber.

Following up on those Senate fundraising numbers

I have figured out why there is a disparity between the U.S. Senate fundraising numbers in Brian Mooney’s Boston Globe story today and in the chart that accompanies his story. It involves the difference between itemized contributions (those of $200 or more) and non-itemized contributions. (My earlier item.)

Mooney’s story mentions it, but it’s unclear from the context what the significance is. Now I understand it, thanks to some labeling that’s been added to the chart since this morning. The Globe’s metro editor, Jen Peter, walked me through it as well.

I’ll explain this with the numbers reported for Sen. Scott Brown’s Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren. Warren reported raising $5.7 million in the fourth quarter of 2011. That number comprises both itemized and non-itemized contributions. Mooney reported that 61.3 percent of Warren’s itemized contributions were from out of state.

Now let’s turn to the chart, to which the phrase “Itemized donations available from FEC” was appended sometime after my first post. Here we learn that Warren raised $1.2 million in itemized in-state contributions during the fourth quarter and $1.9 million in itemized out-of-state contributions. That’s a total of $3.1 million. And yes, $1.9 million is 61.3 percent of $3.1 million.

What you can’t do, as I did earlier today, is take that 61.3 percent and apply it to Warren’s $5.7 million total. That’s because $2.6 million of that total is non-itemized, and thus there’s no way of knowing how much came from out of state and how much came from Massachusetts residents.

Bottom line: Brown beat Warren in itemized, in-state contributions by a margin of $1.5 million to $1.2 million. And we just have no way of knowing with respect to non-itemized contributions of less than $200.

Both Mooney’s story and the chart are accurate, but they are reporting different facts. Mooney does not mention Brown and Warren’s itemized totals; the chart does not mention their overall totals.

Much ado about not much? Yes. But it was a puzzle, and it reached a point where I was determined to solve it. So there you go.

Which Senate candidate is raising more money in-state?

So which U.S. Senate candidate is raising more money from Massachusetts residents? The Republican incumbent, Scott Brown, or his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren?

The emphasis in today’s Boston Globe story by Brian Mooney is on Warren’s out-of-state fundraising prowess. But I thought it would be interesting to dive a little deeper into the numbers. What I discovered is that either someone at the Globe is math-impaired — or that my own dubious math abilities have led me astray.

Let’s start, as I did, with Mooney’s story, which tell us that (1) Warren raised $5.7 million in the fourth quarter of 2011, 61.3 percent of it from out of state; and (2) Brown raised $3.2 million, 66 percent of it from inside the Bay State. By those numbers, Warren raised $2.2 million in Massachusetts and Brown raised $2.1 million. That would mean Warren isn’t just a national fundraising phenomenon, but she’s also doing better than Brown where it really matters.

But wait. After I read the story, I took a look at the bar graph accompanying it — and was informed (misinformed?) that Brown had raised $1.5 million in Massachusetts during the fourth quarter compared to just $1.2 million for Warren. The overall fundraising totals in the graph are much lower than what’s in Mooney’s story, so there’s clearly an apples-and-oranges problem somewhere.

But what is the problem? I’m not sure. Neither the story nor the chart explains the disparity. We’re talking about math, so I don’t rule out the possibility that there’s a simple explanation staring me right in the face. Any thoughts?

Romney didn’t really call Gingrich “zany”

You may have heard that Mitt Romney called Newt Gingrich “zany” in an interview with the New York Times — a rather incendiary charge that’s now burning its way through the political Web. A quick sampling:

  • “A sharper knife came out Wednesday, with Romney expanding his personal attacks on Gingrich. He started with the New York Times, saying of Gingrich,’zany is not what we need in a president.'” (Politico)
  • “Mitt Romney escalated his criticism of Newt Gingrich’s temperament Wednesday, calling the former House speaker ‘zany’ in an interview with The New York Times.” (CNN.com)
  • “His attacks growing ever more personal, Mitt Romney on Wednesday questioned chief rival Newt Gingrich’s temperament, spending habits and allegiance to both the GOP and the middle class while hecklers confronted Gingrich in the lead-off caucus state. During a series of interviews while fundraising in New York, Romney told one media outlet that ‘zany is not what we need in a president’ and another that Gingrich had ‘an extraordinary lack of understanding of how the economy works.'” (Associated Press)

And there’s plenty more where that came from. So would it surprise you to learn that claiming Romney called Gingrich “zany” is barely half-true?

In fact, this is a media-created controversy. The Times put the word in Romney’s mouth, and Romney, as maladroit a candidate as I’ve seen in my lifetime, repeated it. If this little incident backfires on Romney, he surely deserves some of the blame. But, anyway, let’s roll the tape. If you would like to watch, start at about the 3:00 mark. Times reporter Jeff Zeleny is asking Romney about Gingrich:

Zeleny: He has big ideas sometimes, and it seems that he is sort of rapid fire with his thought. Do you think that the American voters are getting enough of a sense of what he might do? Or is there some worry that as president, should he win, that there might be some zany things coming from the Oval Office?

Romney: Well, zany is not what we need in a president. Zany is great in a campaign. It’s great on talk radio, it’s great in the print. It makes for fun reading. But in terms of a president, we need a leader. And a leader needs to be someone who can bring Americans together. A leader needs to be someone of sobriety and stability.

So there you have it. Zeleny, not Romney, called Gingrich “zany,” and Romney went with the flow rather than disagree. If you keep watching, you’ll see Zeleny ask Romney whether he considers Gingrich “unstable,” a reference to Romney’s use of the word “stability.” Romney does not rise to the bait.

Despite what actually happened, the Times story, on which Zeleny takes the lead byline, begins like this:

Mitt Romney, his presidential aspirations suddenly endangered by Newt Gingrich’s rapid resurgence, is employing aggressive new arguments in an effort to disqualify Mr. Gingrich as a credible choice to Republicans, calling him “zany” in an interview on Wednesday and questioning his commitment to free enterprise.

Nor is there any further clarification deeper in the story. And it gets worse, as columnist Gail Collins says of Romney, “Zany really is a pretty unusual word. Why do you think he chose it?” Well, gee, Gail — he didn’t. You only write two columns a week. Would it be too much to ask that you at least watch the edited version of your own paper’s interview?

At this hour, there’s no way of knowing how the “zany” matter is going to play. Will Romney be characterized as looking strong or desperate? I don’t want to make excuses for Romney. He should have sensed danger, he failed to do so and now he may pay a price for it.

But he didn’t really call Gingrich “zany.”

Correction: Spelling of Zeleny’s name now fixed.

Boehner puts words in Obama’s mouth

It looks like House Speaker John Boehner put out a fake quote attributed to President Obama, and that no one is going to call him on it.

Here it is in the New York Times: “President Obama likes to talk about being ‘the adult in the room’ — but there’s nothing ‘adult’ about political grandstanding.” Politico’s got it, and so does the Hill. What’s missing from these accounts is the fact that, as best as I can tell, Obama never said it, even though Boehner’s statement helpfully places the phrase in quotation marks.

If you hop on the Google, you’ll find numerous references to Obama’s being “the adult in the room.” It’s a line being promoted by his aides and denigrated by his critics. Fine. But there’s a huge difference between having someone say it on your behalf and saying it yourself. The former is a tactic; the latter is kind of icky.

As journalistic sins go, this one is kind of minor. But when the Speaker quotes the president in a derogatory way, using words the president never actually spoke, the media ought to call him out on it, no?

Forbes tries to justify four-year error

The Boston Globe checks in with Forbes to find out how the magazine’s annual rankings could penalize Northeastern University for having a low four-year graduation rate given that it is a five-year school. And a magazine editor actually defends the methodology, saying, well, gee, we’ve got to base our rankings on something.

We also learn that 27.5 percent of the rankings are based on student satisfaction, “determined primarily by feedback on RateMyProfessors.com.” Wow. Without getting into the pros and cons of RateMyProfessors, let me just observe that the sample size for most instructors is so low that the data are entirely anecdotal.

Someone at Forbes should have gone to Northeastern

I really should be working, but I can’t let this pass. Forbes has posted its rankings of colleges and universities, and Northeastern comes in at a very low 534th.

Dig a little deeper, as one of my former students, @rachelsarahsays, did, and you’ll see that one of the reasons for the poor ranking is Northeastern’s four-year graduation rate — zero percent.

Uh, Northeastern is a five-year school. Good work, Forbes! Or, as @rachelsarahsays puts it, “such horrific journalism.” Indeed.

Globe seeks false balance on Goldstone mea culpa

Richard Goldstone

I’m disappointed that editors at the Boston Globe decided they needed to balance Jeff Jacoby’s column on Richard Goldstone’s remarkable mea culpa regarding Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war with a piece arguing, in essence, that Goldstone didn’t really mean it.

Goldstone, a South African judge and diplomat, headed a U.N. investigation into the Gaza war several years ago, and concluded that Israel had committed war crimes against the civilian population. The so-called Goldstone Report has been a cudgel wielded by Israel’s enemies ever since.

So it was (or, rather, should have been) big news when the Washington Post published an op-ed by Goldstone last Friday in which he says that he and his fellow investigators were way too hard on Israel and not nearly hard enough on Hamas. And he credits Israel for investigating the report’s findings while criticizing Hamas for doing nothing. Goldstone writes:

Some have suggested that it was absurd to expect Hamas, an organization that has a policy to destroy the state of Israel, to investigate what we said were serious war crimes. It was my hope, even if unrealistic, that Hamas would do so, especially if Israel conducted its own investigations. At minimum I hoped that in the face of a clear finding that its members were committing serious war crimes, Hamas would curtail its attacks. Sadly, that has not been the case. Hundreds more rockets and mortar rounds have been directed at civilian targets in southern Israel. That comparatively few Israelis have been killed by the unlawful rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza in no way minimizes the criminality. The U.N. Human Rights Council should condemn these heinous acts in the strongest terms.

Other than a brief Associated Press story that ran on Monday, today is the first time the Globe has addressed Goldstone’s turnaround. Jacoby characterizes the original Goldstone Report — hyperbolically, though not without cause — as a “blood libel,” and writes, “The Goldstone report did incalculable damage to Israel’s good name. Breathlessly hyped in the media, it accelerated the already frenzied international campaign to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state.”

The importance of Goldstone’s turnaround can’t be exaggerated. Yet running along with Jacoby’s column today is a piece by Nimer Sultany, described as “a civil rights lawyer in Israel and a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School,” accusing Goldstone of giving in to pressure from fellow Jews and of making another Israeli incursion into Gaza more likely.

“The lingering question,” Sultany writes, “is whether Goldstone can look hundreds of Palestinian civilian victims in the eye and say he stood up for them in the face of severe Israeli and American criticism.”

Goldstone’s turnaround, of course, is not above questioning. As Sultany suggests, there have been reports that Goldstone had been ostracized by the South African Jewish community — although be sure to check out the correction at the bottom of this New York Times story. (The Times also reportedly rejected Goldstone’s op-ed before he shopped it to the Post, though Ben Smith of Politico says otherwise.)

Nevertheless, what Goldstone is saying now hasn’t received nearly enough attention from the media in general or from the Globe specifically. By running Sultany’s rebuttal on the same page as Jacoby’s column, the Globe opens itself up to criticism by those who have long believed the Globe is guilty of anti-Israeli bias.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Needed: A fuller report from Kazakhstan


My old Boston Phoenix colleague Ellen Barry, now the stellar Russia correspondent for the New York Times, weighs in with a surprisingly by-the-numbers report on the weekend election in Kazakhstan. The country’s authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was re-elected with 95.5 percent of the vote, according to the government.

For some perspective, I read Adil Nurmakov’s recent analysis at Global Voices Online. Nurmakov, who is Global Voices’ Central Asia editor, wrote on March 4 that the election campaign was something of a farce, explaining that the opposition was boycotting the proceedings (which Barry also acknowledges) and adding:

The process of candidates nomination was perceived by many as a circus — and it really resembled a carousel of comic characters, including pensioners, some small businessmen and the person, notoriously known for his startling behavior. Interestingly, an overwhelming majority of those 18 nominees were publicly voicing their “utter support” of the current head of the state.

Above is a video interview I conducted with Nurmakov in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in April 2009, when I was taking part in the Nazarbayev-sponsored Eurasian Media Forum.

Meanwhile, on Friday the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued an alert regarding the disappearance of Daniyar Moldashev, who is essentially the publisher of the Almaty-based opposition newspaper Respublika. Prior to his disappearance he was assaulted, according to CPJ.

“We are gravely concerned about the health and well-being of Daniyar Moldashev and call on Kazakh authorities to positively determine his whereabouts and ensure his safety,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a statement on the organization’s website.

Here is a Q&A I conducted with Respublika journalist Yevgeniya Plakhina last June. I met Plakhina at the Eurasian Media Forum, where she protested proposed restrictions on the Internet (those restrictions were later adopted). Several of her friends were arrested and released a short time later.

Because of its oil and gas reserves, Kazakhstan is an important country on the world scene. In reading Barry’s story, you can almost sense that she wrote parts of it with an arched eyebrow. I hope the Times will give her the time and space she needs to take a closer look at what’s really going on in Kazakhstan.

Monday night update: Barry already has a good follow-up. This story will bear watching.