Media Missing in Action in Southwest Washington’s U.S. Congressional Race

For the past four months, I’ve been getting a view of a U.S. Congressional race that not many get. That’s because I’m Campaign Manager for, Jon Russell, a candidate in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District. Not so coincidentally, I haven’t done much writing during this time. This is partially because I’m not the candidate and I try to avoid appearing to be speaking on his behalf. Mostly, though, it’s because the intensely busy schedule of a Campaign Manager just doesn’t leave much spare time. However, this fairly unique perspective I’ve been given has allowed me to get a close-up look at aspects of this congressional race and to recognize several of them as being in such a sorry state that I just had to find time to speak out about them. The first of these, that I’m taking time to address, relates to the “reporting” being done by the “newspapers” based in and around Southwest Washington.

According to a Washington Post-ABC News Poll taken on February 11, 2010, “Two-thirds of Americans are ‘dissatisfied’ or downright ‘angry’ about the way the federal government is working.” In the article that accompanied that poll, this is connected to “the ‘tea party’ movement, which emerged last year and attracted voters angry at a government they thought was spending recklessly and overstepping its constitutional powers.” The most obvious hard evidence (going beyond polling) of this is the recent election of Scott Brown, as the first Republican Senator from Massachusetts since 1972. Affirming that the political atmosphere which buoyed Scott Brown’s campaign to victory spans from coast-to-coast, when asked about this in a recent blogger conference call, Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA-05) stated that Brown’s election indicates that voters “have an enthusiasm for outsiders” and that they are looking for candidates to represent them “who have a real-world perspective.” With this in mind, you’d think this would be a real heyday for Reporters, to be digging into what voters (their advertisers and subscribers) are looking for in candidates and closely examining every candidate in the field to report which ones match up and which ones don’t. Sadly, at least in most instances in Southwest Washington, that is not what I’ve found.

When I say that “the media is missing in action in Southwest Washington’s U.S. Congressional race”, I’m not saying that the newspapers in this area aren’t publishing much about the race on a regular basis. Before the incumbent, Brian Baird, announced that he wouldn’t be seeking reelection, there were two Republicans who had announced they would oppose him and the race wasn’t getting much coverage. However, on December 9th, Baird announced his retirement from Congress and a bevy of opportunistic Career Politicians immediately announced their candidacy. By my latest count, there are four Republicans and six Democrats in the race. So, now, it’s not uncommon to see something in each of the area’s newspapers about this congressional contest. However, most of it is just regurgitation or, at best, repurposing of text that has come to the newspapers, most often in the form of Press Releases. In other words, very little of it involves true reporting. That is my concern. In order to illustrate this, let me share the details of a personal experience that I had with one local newspaper, that I think serves as a good example of my concerns in this regard.

From what I’ve seen, the Jon Russell for U.S. Congress campaign has been busier than any of the other campaigns, in terms of getting out and giving voters opportunities to get acquainted with the candidate. This involves numerous forms of meeting opportunities, including the ongoing series of Town Hall Meetings, begun last August, when Brian Baird was ducking having Town Hall Meetings. In the coming week, the Russell campaign will complete Town Hall Meetings #16, #17 & #18. To better accommodate this effort throughout the seven counties included in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, at the outset of 2010, the Russell campaign moved from a traditional brick-and-mortar headquarters into a mobile headquarters … I like to call it RV1. At that time, it struck me that Reporters from newspapers based in and around the district might be interested in the insight they could gain and report on from traveling with the Russell campaign for a day here and there. Looking at the Campaign Calendar, I selected a day when we would pretty much be spending the day in the “backyard” of a specific newspaper and I invited the Reporter assigned to our race to join us for as much of the day as he had available. From my perspective, the day I selected turned out to be every bit as interesting as I thought it would be. After completing the preceding day with a Town Hall Meeting in another county, we traveled in RV1 to begin the day, participating in an early-morning meeting of a Men’s Bible Study Group in a rural community. Afterwards, we conducted a breakfast meeting, hosted by the campaign, in that same community. From there, we traveled for nearly an hour to hold a Meet-and-Greet in another rural community. Then, we held a luncheon meeting, en route to attend a Tea Party event. Next, we held an early-dinner meeting, en route to close out the day with a standing-room-only Town Hall Meeting at a Fire Hall in yet another community. Unfortunately, the Reporter I invited didn’t join us at any point along the way. In fact, he didn’t even acknowledge the invitation we had extended, both by voice mail and by email.

Although I was disappointed that the above-mentioned newspaper hadn’t taken advantage of the reporting opportunity we had given them, I thought that maybe they just weren’t in a position to do so, due to some legitimate schedule conflict. However, when just a week later that same publication featured an Editorial on this year’s race in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District and Jon Russell wasn’t even included in the Republican Candidates mentioned, I felt justified in contacting their Executive Editor. Here’s what came out of that conversation:

The Executive Editor stated that he hadn’t included Jon in the article in question because he didn’t view Jon as the “front-runner” or the “obvious ultimate nominee.” When I asked him what this judgment was based on, since no professional polling has been done on this race, he referenced an article written by a Commentator for Seattle’s KING-TV, who had only mentioned one candidate, as the “apparent nominee.” Then, I asked him if he thought it was appropriate for a Seattle-area Commentator to determine who readers in the area his newspaper serves should vote for or if they should be allowed to determine that for themselves. His only response was to say that he bet, in the end, the Commentator would turn out to be right. I went on to point out that this wasn’t the first time the Jon Russell for U.S. Congress campaign had been marginalized by this publication. In a previous article, they labeled another candidate as being the “most active.” I let the Editor know that, “in light of how we’re out there busting our b…s every day”, it’s pretty disturbing to read that sort of judgmental comment and it’s even more so, when they ignore the sort of opportunity we gave them for their Reporter to come out with us for a day on the campaign trail, in their own “backyard.” When I mentioned that the day we had invited their Reporter to join in had concluded with a “standing-room-only” Town Hall, the Editor, sarcastically, asked, “Where was that, in someone’s home?” When I pointed out that the Town Hall I mentioned had been held in a Fire Hall, as noted in the related Press Release that his newspaper had published (though buried in an obscure section), the Editor finally fell silent.

I wish I could say that this example of my personal experience was the exception but it is not. In a recent article regarding Quarterly FEC filings, a Reporter for one of the bigger newspapers in the area was unclear about what she found on the FEC Website so, without checking with us or any other source, she reported that we hadn’t made our Quarterly filing. We had. Although I thought that the Reporter mentioned in the example I detailed above may have had some legitimate schedule conflict that kept him from taking us up on our invitation to join us on the campaign day we spent in his newspaper’s “backyard”, apparently his schedule isn’t that full every day. Two weeks after my conversation with his Executive Editor, we found ourselves in that newspaper’s community again so we decided to drop in. The Reporter came to the front desk immediately, without even knowing who was asking for him. He then took us to a conference room and conducted a fairly detailed interview with Jon. Finally, the most obvious evidence of my point about the “Media Missing in Action” is their absence throughout Jon Russell’s series of Town Hall Meetings. Fifteen of these have been completed and a total of 18 will have been completed by the end of this week. Jon Russell’s Town Hall Meetings have been held in each of the counties in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District. No Reporter has attended even one of these meetings.

The obvious question about this lack of presence, on the part of newspapers in Southwest Washington is “Why?” Is it just a reflection of the current state of the “print media”? In other words, are newspapers presently just unable to afford Reporters who are skilled and energetic? Or, is it because each newspaper has their own agenda, favoring one candidate over another? Perhaps the reason is something else altogether. I don’t know. I can tell you that, whatever it is, it seems to emanate from a consistent attitude with most of these newspapers that they are “The Fourth Estate” and that it’s unwise to take exception with organizations who “buy their ink by the barrel.”

Thankfully, there are exceptions to report here. Last December, in The Columbian, Ann Donnelly wrote an article on the race in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District that I thought was as “fair and balanced” as any I’ve read. Unfortunately, Ann isn’t the Reporter The Columbian has assigned to this race. And, at the beginning of this month, I got to sit in on Jon Russell’s meeting with Matt Winters, Editor/Publisher of The Chinook Observer. I couldn’t have been more impressed with Matt’s learned command of the issues confronting the area served by his publication … even down to details of Oceanic Acidification’s effect on Oyster Seed and its impact on the Oyster Harvest. It’s really a shame that Matt’s level of professionalism isn’t more commonly found in publications serving more densely populated areas.

The remaining question here is, “What can we do about this?’ I believe the answer is held in the exceptions I just pointed out. In other words, there are exceptions – i.e. alternatives to turn to. My recommendation is that we take the same “Tea Party” stance with the mainstream media that we’ve been taking with our government. It may be true that they “buy their ink by the barrel” but they do it with the money they get from us, through our advertising and subscriptions. So I want to encourage you to let the newspapers serving the area you live in know that you expect thoroughly professional reporting from them and that if you don’t start getting that, you’ll make your financial support available to others, who are willing to come into your town to set up shop and provide the service you expect.