Polar Opposites: Regular readers might remember that during my time at CJR, I was something of a nag about what journalists could learn from political science. This could probably get tedious, since a regular frame for these stories is, “You know that scandal/debate/message war/gaffe that you spent two days reporting on? It didn’t matter much.” Sometimes, though, poli-sci offers different—and compelling—explanations for things that everyone agrees do matter, such as partisan polarization. This June piece played off of a run-of-the-mill McClatchy story to summarize some of the leading research on polarization: Turns out it’s not that politicians just stopped being nice to each other. (And it’s not the fault of gerrymandering, either.)
Putrid Polling: Another nice thing about paying attention to poli-sci is that it can give you the tools to explain something that press observers know intuitively: much media use of polling data is just plain bad. In March, I highlighted a post by ABC News pollster Gary Langer that took apart a “scary” poll of Republicans, one of those “your political opponents are much crazier than you ever feared!” items that makes the rounds on the Web every few weeks. And in June, Pollster.com’s Charles Franklin helped me explain why Chuck Todd’s insistence that the Gulf oil spill was dragging Obama down just wasn’t supported by the evidence.
License to Kill: For all the crazy talk from some quarters about how health care reform is tyranny in disguise, one of the underreported stories of the year was about a really unprecedented assertion of executive power: the White House’s claim that Barack Obama can order the assassination of Anwar Al-awlaki, an al Qaeda operative and U.S. citizen, without judicial review. I returned to this story three times: first, to round up what had been written and explain why the story merited further coverage; second, to note the D.C. press corps’ apparent lack of interest; and finally, to flag a front-page piece in the New York Times that noted “unease” about the president’s actions.
More reading for national-security geeks: In July, I chronicled a coordinated press effort to push back against government-imposed restrictions on reporting at Guantanamo Bay.
Tea Time: As some astute observers have since noted, there was something a little naïve about much of the breathless coverage of the Tea Party in early 2010 (after much of the press spent the bulk of 2009 not noticing the movement): there’s a long history of conservative Americans getting energized and organized during periods of Democratic governance. Still, David Barstow’s 4,500-word piece on the movement for The New York Times in February was an ambitious and fascinating bit of reporting. After his piece was published, Barstow fielded some questions from me, offering an account of his reporting process and some further insights about his subject.
Down Arkansas Way: One of my more delightful assignments at CJR was to keep tabs on the Arkansas press corps during the hard-fought Democratic Senate primary between Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter. Hopefully I was able to highlight some actual information, like the fact that Halter, the favorite of the liberal “netroots,” actually did best in more conservative rural areas.
Mostly, though, it was a chance to share some of the more entertaining endorsements I’ve read: Like this, from Ernest Dumas in support of Halter:
Forget Senator Lincoln’s Agriculture chairmanship and her lovely personality and Halter’s wretched lottery and his off-putting ambition. Halter is a Democrat’s only chance, and in this cheerless year it is not a great one.
Or this, from the Democrat-Gazette, on behalf of Republican John Boozman:
This year, the plain, reliable, and quite predictable congressman from the Third District stands out like a proper Rotarian in that little car at circuses which drives up packed with clowns in full make-up. What a relief to see a solid citizen in this nut-rich mix.
While I’ve never been there, Arkansas now holds a special place in my heart. Whatever else happens, we’ll always have Monroe Schwarzlose.
The Weigel Thing: My contribution to the “Dave Weigel gets dumped by WaPo” sweepstakes consisted mostly of repurposing Maureen Tkacik’s cover story from CJR’s May/June issue. It turned out pretty well, which reinforced one of the basic rules of writing: find a good writer, then borrow her words.