One reason journalists may loathe 2012 campaign; their power to set agenda has never been lower
Much as I like Matt Lauer's interviewing skills sometimes, I think he missed a golden opportunity in his interview with GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan on the Today show this morning.
He had the right idea: Using the candidate's appearance -- intended to blunt the impact of the Democratic National Convention's start -- to challenge Ryan on several misleading statements he made in his speech at the GOP convention here in Tampa last week.
But in challenging Ryan, Lauer didn't produce the candidate's own words, allowing him to make another questionable claim about what he meant last week -- in the process demonstrating why some journalists may have come to "loathe" covering this campaign.
When asked by Lauer if he unfairly implied Obama had broken a promise to keep open a General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisc. which mostly closed before the president took office, Ryan countered by saying he was misquoted.
"What they are trying to suggest is I said Barack Obama was responsible for a plant shutdown in Janesville,” he said. “That is not what I was saying. Read the speech. What I was saying is the president ought to be held to account for his broken promises. After our plant was shut down, he said would lead an effort to retool plants like the Janesville plant to get people back to work.”
But if you do read Ryan's speech, this is what he said: ""My home state voted for President Obama. When he talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory. A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: 'I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.' That’s what he said in 2008. Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight."
No words in that speech excerpt address what Obama said after the plant was shutdown. During Lauer's interview, I yearned for the ghost of Meet the Press host Tim Russert to rise up and employ his time-honored tactic of displaying a candidate's words on screen to catch them in contradictions.
The Tampa Bay Times' factchecking website PolitiFact noted Obama never explicitly promised to keep the plant open, which closed before he took office, rating Ryan's claim in his speech false.
But given the press' inability to pin down such distortions, it's a small wonder some campaign journalists have lamented that that they "loathe" covering the current presidential campaign -- at least, according to a piece by POLITICO's media reporter Dylan Byers.
Thanks to well-controlled social media platforms and a news cycle hungry for the latest controversy, journalists in Byers piece seem to feel powerless to change the narrative or debunk unfair attacks. "Until the candidates restore joy, it's impossible for us to be joyful," said NBC News correspondent Chuck Todd in the POLITICO story.
That same frustration burst forth during a question and answer session with journalists assembled for PBS host Gwen Ifill's Washington Week show in St. Petersburg just before the RNC.
In various ways, audience members at the Palladium Theater asked the same question: Why can't you guys make politicians talk about the issues we care about, even when they don't want to? And why can't you make them pay a price for lying?
Answering that question is the key to modern journalists finding their mojo in this political campaign; changing their status from chasing after strategies to vetting the dialogue.
I suspect it has something to do with shrugging off charges of bias and being willing to insist on truth in public statements, even when it snarks everybody off.