Last week I criticized the Associated Press’ Washington bureau chief, Ron Fournier, for writing what I thought was a dumb and partisan analysis of the Joe Biden pick. Fournier, as I noted, has an interesting history with John McCain, so I was wondering if he would be similarly harsh when writing about McCain’s choice.
To Fournier’s credit, his analysis of the Sarah Palin nomination is pretty tough. Granted, it would be hard for it not to be given its utter ludicrousness. But Fournier hits all the right notes, observing that McCain himself said just a few months ago that he was determined not to repeat George H.W. Bush’s Dan Quayle mistake of 1988 — and making it clear that he just did.
Personally, I think Fournier is wrong about Biden and right about Palin. But he was even-handed.
Some years ago I remember reading a profile of Ron Fournier, who was then fairly new as a political reporter for the Associated Press.
It’s not likely I’m going to find a link at this late date, so I’ll have to rely on my memory. What I recall was his saying he’d never been all that interested in politics, an attitude he thought had helped him break some stories. He was a hard-news reporter, not a partisan.
Well, now. I want to follow up my post of earlier today, because I think Fournier’s “analysis” of the Joe Biden pick is remarkable enough that we shouldn’t let go of it too quickly. It’s not that Fournier’s anti-Obama bias is so obvious, though it is. It’s that his take is embarrassingly dumb and shallow. A news analysis is an odd duck; neither a news story nor an opinion piece, it is supposed to make sense of the news. Fournier’s attempt fails dismally.
Steve Stein has posted some terrific links, and I recommend the Washington Monthly item he flags. What I like about that item, written by Steve Benen, is that it gets to the heart of how lazy Fournier is to suggest that Barack Obama’s choice shows a “lack of confidence” in his reformist, outsider message. As Benen notes, you could say that about any vice-presidential pick: if Obama had chosen Hillary Clinton, it would show a “lack of confidence” that he could win the women’s vote without her. You get the idea. Benen also notes that Fournier nearly took a job with the McCain campaign in 2007.
Drilling down a little further, Eric Boehlert’s excellent overview — which gathers everything from Fournier’s inappropriately supportive e-mail to Karl Rove to his supplying McCain with his favorite donuts (ooh, sprinkles!) — links out to a Politico piece that explains Fournier’s rationale for the AP’s increasingly edgy, opinionated journalism. Michael Calderone writes:
Fournier is a main engine in a high-stakes experiment at the 162-year old wire to move from its signature neutral and detached tone to an aggressive, plain-spoken style of writing that Fournier often describes as “cutting through the clutter.”
In the stories the new boss is encouraging, first-person writing and emotive language are okay.
So is scrapping the stonefaced approach to journalism that accepts politicians’ statements at face value and offers equal treatment to all sides of an argument. Instead, reporters are encouraged to throw away the weasel words and call it like they see it when they think public officials have revealed themselves as phonies or flip-floppers.
I’m not buying it. I’m no fan of traditional objectivity and its passive reliance on official statements. But we need tough, fair, neutral reporting more than ever, and it seems to me that the AP ought to be at the forefront of providing it. With regional newspapers cutting back on their national and international coverage, this should be a chance for the AP to shine.
In an e-mail to Media Nation, Stephen Burgard, director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University (i.e., my chairman), writes:
I read Fournier’s “analysis” before checking your blog today and was independently appalled. Since when is choosing somebody knowledgeable in foreign affairs and the Senate Judiciary Committee, who balances a ticket as well, a sign of lack of confidence or weakness?
The suggestion that the confident move would be to bring in somebody inexperienced who represents the “politics of change” and “hope” is ludicrous; it’s something you might expect to see in a student lefty publication, not from the AP, which is supposed to understand how presidential politics works.
I can’t help remembering that the AP’s Walter Mears wrote the book on the journalistic form “news analysis.” In addition to writing good ones, he was able to explain what they were when done right. Not straight news stories. Not opinion pieces. But somehow interpretive in a way that shed an informed reporter’s light beyond just being a stenographer of events.
Perhaps Fournier thinks he was being “intrepretive.” He wasn’t. Fournier may well be in the tank for McCain, but I would feel only slightly better if he were dishing it out equally to both sides. The fact is that Fournier’s “analysis” is a piece of pure opinion, unsophisticated and uninformed.
It’s not just that it should have been better. It’s that we depend on the AP to provide us with something fundamentally different.
In an “analysis” headlined “Biden pick shows lack of confidence,” Ron Fournier of the Associated Press writes:
For all his self-confidence, the 47-year-old Illinois senator worried that he couldn’t beat Republican John McCain without help from a seasoned politician willing to attack. The Biden selection is the next logistical step in an Obama campaign that has become more negative — a strategic decision that may be necessary but threatens to run counter to his image.
That’s because, well, Obama probably can’t beat McCain without help from a seasoned politician willing to attack.
Let me lend a hand and help Fournier with what he may be writing one week from today:
For all his self-confidence, the 72-year-old Arizona senator worried that he couldn’t beat Democrat Barack Obama without help from a seasoned politician willing to attack. The Romney selection is the next logistical step in a McCain campaign that has become more negative — a strategic decision that may be necessary but threatens to run counter to his image.
Any questions? Other than wondering how many brain cells Fournier fired up before putting fingers to keyboard?
David Brooks on Friday: “Biden’s the one. The only question is whether Obama was wise and self-aware enough to know that.”