5 things I think I think about today’s Tampa Bay Times

By on September 13, 2012

I want to begin today by circling back to yesterday’s review of Edison : food + drink lab, Jeannie Pierola’s new restaurant.

I really don’t have any issue with the review itself, just a question about who handles Pierola’s PR? Sure, I enjoy her food and tried to be one of the first to visit her various KitchenBar pop-ups, but Pierola has not had a stable job since 2007. Yet her movements are tracked by food critic Laura Reiley with special forces precision.

Surely, there are other talented chefs who would welcome such attention.

Now on to current events…

This photo of anti-Muslim pastor Terry Jones speaks volumes, especially the framed movie poster of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.

Guess which story on TampaBay.com is the only one that has been shared more than the one about Jones’ role in the death of the US Ambassador in Libya? It’s the story about County Commission candidate Janet Long’s comments that “firefighters have taken advantage of 9/11″ for their own political gain.

That story has generated 548 comments on the Times‘ website.  I can’t remember any other local political story ever generating that same volume of reaction.

This reaction prompted two thoughts about the Times coverage of this story. First, a minor note about how silly the Times commenting system is, with its “Important”, “Inspiring”, “Sad”, “Angry”, and “LOL” options. I don’t know of any other major media website which offers such interaction, but that hardly makes this system innovative. It’s childish, false, and narrowing, all the while providing some false sense of interactivity.

More important, the story about Long’s comments remind us of just how powerful the local newspaper can be. Long made her comments during a meeting with the Times editorial board. Few other institutions, certainly no other media outlets, have the power to beckon candidates to submit themselves to their inquiries. Candidates don’t sit down with blogs or radio stations or TV networks. The candidates are on the Times’ turf. That’s an advantage. No wonder some candidates don’t participate in the process.

It’s interesting how this story developed. Candidate sits down with newspaper’s editorial board. Newspaper, but not ed board, writes about what candidate says. The newspaper gets another hit by writing about the reaction to this story. Then the editorial board gets to weigh in, not about the election it was interviewing the candidate about, but about what was said at the interview.

In other words, Janet Long could have avoided all of this by not sitting down with the Times editorial board. Like I said, it’s no wonder some candidates, from Gov. Rick Scott on down, don’t meet with editorial boards. Look at the potential downside.

This isn’t a criticism of the Times‘ specific coverage — it was right and Long was wrong — rather a possible explanation of why some candidates aren’t meeting with editorial boards and why some editorial boards are no longer meeting with candidates.

The decline of the editorial board recommendation process is, I posit, part of the problems traditional media is having covering and writing about modern campaigns.

These problems are more fully explored in Sasha Issenberg’s “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns,” which examines the analytic revolution driving politics — a revolution which is all but invisible to the press.

Over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on. Campaign professionals have developed a new conceptual framework for understanding what moves votes. It’s as if restaurant critics remained oblivious to a generation’s worth of new chefs’ tools and techniques and persisted in describing every dish that came out of the kitchen as either “grilled” or “broiled.”

Walter Russell Mead has brandished Issenberg’s book against the mainstream media:

What this means from the standpoint of readers is fascinating: we are spending hours and hours following the most exhaustively reported phenomenon in modern life, but we aren’t being told what is really going on. Not because incredibly sharp editors and reporters are scurrying like crazy to conceal the truth from the public, but because the mediocre bureaucrats who staff established news organizations aren’t smart enough to understand what is actually taking place. The legacy media is too stupid and too lazy to understand the event on which it expends more resources than any other — and as long as enough eyeballs are attracted by the show, it doesn’t really care.

Working both in campaigns and near the press, I can vouch for Issenberg’s thesis. The Times, with all of its Pulitzers and investigative reporters, understands very little about how campaigns are run and won. The Times is excellent at covering the sausage making process that is the legislative session in Tallahassee, but it has little knowledge about what goes into the sausage in the first place.

Prima facie evidence of this is Times editor Neil Brown’s full-throated defense of PolitiFact and fact-checking journalism.

(W)e have published more than 6,000 Truth-O-Meter stories, set up shop in 11 states and have 36 fact-check journalists reporting on claims made from the White House to the statehouse to City Hall. We are syndicated in newspapers around the country.

Along the way, we’ve called out Republicans for misleading Americans on Obamacare, and Democrats for scary over-the-top characterizations of Paul Ryan’s budget ideas. We’ve documented every promise candidate Obama made before he became president and scored how many he has kept and broken. We’ve been “fired” by lefty Rachel Maddow, scolded by liberal Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, berated by the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. We won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

The heat comes from all sides and our audience comes from all over. In the past two weeks of party conventions, a record 1.2 million unique users went to PolitiFact.com, racking up more than 4 million page views of our journalism.

Today there is more fact-check journalism under way than ever before. Reporters at Factcheck.org (one of the earliest and most credible initiatives), the Washington Post Fact Checker and other newsrooms are diving deep into the claims of politicians, asking the most basic question: Is it true?

All well and good, Mr. Brown, but I have yet to meet the politician who changed their tactics out of fear of PolitiFact.

Just look at this blog from Tolouse Olorunnipa posted today:

Gov. Rick Scott continued to tout a drop in Florida’s unemployment rate Thursday, despite objective data from economists that say the reduction is nothing to celebrate.

We covered this dissonance yesterday, and last month, so check out the full fact-check here.

Specifically, Scott grabbed two data points that actually indicate an underperforming economy, and used them to boost his record.

It’s almost as if Scott is doing what he is doing just to spite PolitiFact.

If only some of the energy that goes into all of the fact-checking went into better understanding the art of campaigning.

Now, that would be something worth reading.

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