In a Dec. 4 column, I wrote about journalists’ reflex to impose their own narrative on a race, a dynamic that can eclipse what candidates are actually saying. Well, as last week’s Iowa caucuses demonstrated, the Republican nomination contest steadfastly resists any coherent narrative.
Early in the campaign, The Times decided to remain low key in its coverage of Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman, and Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator. Their strong showings on Tuesday, following the serial derailments of other contenders, showed just how hard it is for the paper to read the plotline of this contest.
Brisbane is showing admirable candor here. Reporters do indeed have to find a way to frame a story to make it interesting to the audience.
But he's wrong about Ron Paul. There was a "coherent narrative" to his race from the very beginning. Ron Paul consistently ran in the top four in the polls. He had a ground game and fund-raising operation second only to Mitt Romney. Not only that, but polls showed he was the only candidate other than Romney who was close to Barack Obama in head-to-head polls.
It was obvious from the beginning that Paul was going be a factor in the race. In the summer, when he finished in a statistical dead heat at the top of the Iowa straw poll, it became obvious that Paul was going to do well in the Iowa caucuses as well, since they are just a glorified version of the straw poll. Yet the Times joined with other papers in ignoring his finish and trumpeting Michele Bachmann.
As with Sarah Palin, the members of the media love to play up the role of attractive but not-so-bright women in the Republican Party. It makes Republicans look like a bunch of rubes. Alas, Bachmann was not as popular with the voters as she was with reporters looking for a way to caricature the GOP.
As for Santorum, Brisbane makes a mistake in lumping him in with Paul. Santorum lingered near the bottom of early polls and it truly was a surprise when he rose in Iowa. Paul's showing there and in New Hampshire was entirely predictable; Santorum's wasn't.
And Santorum said nothing in the debates that made him stand out. He never departed from the party line of promising both budget cuts and a bigger military.
This was an issue only Ron Paul addressed honestly. I would have loved to see a Times article with a pie chart showing the impossibility of balancing the budget without the defense cuts Paul proposed. That would have been a real service to readers. But it didn't fit the narrative of the newspaper that did as much to get us into the Iraq War as William Randolph Hearst's papers did to get us into the Spanish-American War.
As in that instance, someone at the times needs to be told he's in the wrong line of work. And that someone is political editor Richard Stevenson. In that Dec. 4 column, Brisbane quotes Stevenson on the effort to keep Paul out of the paper:
One candidate who seems to float outside this dynamic is Ron Paul, the Texas libertarian. The Project for Excellence in Journalism says he is getting weak coverage despite poll numbers now putting him in the top half of the pack.
On this point, Steve Bowen, a Times reader in Tulsa, Okla., wrote me to say: “One must wonder about why The Times and other major media refuse to allow their reporters to cover Ron Paul in at least the amounts afforded to other candidates. Especially those who poll well below his numbers.”
Which brings us back to Mr. Stevenson and The Times’s approach to a campaign that wants to be epic but remains stuck in its pre-epic phase.
“Not all candidates are created equal,” he said. “We do not feel compelled to treat every candidate with the same intensity or seriousness as we do others.”
It's called the news business, Dickey boy. The news in this campaign is Ron Paul. The only thing that makes the debates interesting is his departure from the orthodoxy expressed by the rest of the crowd. If you've been paying attention to Paul since 2007 as I have, you'll note that many of his ideas that were dismissed four years ago are now central to the Republican debate.
But the real story in this campaign is one that makes every liberal I know uneasy. It concerns foreign policy. Paul is returning the Republican party to its roots on the question of foreign involvement. On this question there's little difference between the typical liberal and the typical "neo" conservative.
The liberals loved to pile on George W. Bush for his bungling in the Mideast, but let someone come along and propose we get out of that part of the world altogether and all of a sudden the liberals start sounding like Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld. They come up with all sorts of reasons why we need to be involved in the internal affairs of those faraway countries.
When it comes to the question of ignoring Paul, the attitude of the Times editors is rooted in the idea that some things are just not discussed in polite society. It's okay for Romney or Santorum to make the assertion that he will expand the military while balancing the budget and without raising taxes. That's false but it doesn't bother the Times.
However when a candidate says we can't afford to be the policeman of the world, that candidate is kept out of the news not because what he's saying is false but because it's true. If that candidate also proposes ending a whole passel of programs deemed untouchable by the Times, well that's all the more reason not to let readers hear about the guy.
But Ron Paul's been the only good story in this race. His views have turned out to be popular within the Republican Party - and getting more popular by the minute.
Those views are not popular with the Times crowd. But we know that from the editorials and the columns. We don't need to read it in the news section as well.
ALSO: This isn't the first time the Times has been caught red-handed, as it were.
Note my piece on how Nate Silver went out of his way to include losers like Bachmann and Jon Huntsman in an article on how conservatives would fare against Obama while leaving out the candidate with the highest conservative ratings, Ron Paul:
Paul is the most conservative candidate in the race by a long shot. Silver's analysis of voting records and other data show Paul scoring an amazing 96 points on a 100-point scale of conservative values. Romney scores 49 and Hunstman is the most liberal at 40.
ALSO, note this line from that Dec. 4 column:
So Silver got that right. Paul is indeed the most conservative by any measure of conservative values.
But again that's even more evidence Paul should be among the five candidates considered. He included Huntsman, who barely registered in the polls, because he wanted to show how the most liberal candidate would fare against Obama. Yet he excludes the most conservative candidate in the field, even though he runs high in the polls. It's as if he wants to avoid dealing with the question of how a true conservative would fare against Obama.
For now The Times has made judgment calls about who gets what. Mitt Romney, Perry, Gingrich and Cain all have a beat reporter assigned to their campaigns, while the rest of the field gets what Mr. Stevenson calls “zone coverage.” Judgment? As late as December, this editor thought Perry and Cain were still viable candidates? That's more than just bad judgment.If the Times ever starts handing out a Judy Miller award for biased journalism, this guy deserves to win it.