Reporting Rhetoric, Non-Obnoxiously

Or, how to take the "er" out of "strategery"

Reporting about campaign rhetoric can be one of the trickiest balancing acts there is in political journalism. Go too far in one direction, and—wobble!—you’re Biased; go too far in the other, and—wobble!—you’re Dull. Indeed, even if you manage to keep your balance, literally and figuratively, in your reportorial exploits, you run the risk of being boring. Or, at least, hopelessly redundant. (The McCain campaign is trying to disassociate itself from the Bush/Cheney legacy? Shocking. The Obama campaign is trying to win over middle-class, middle-aged women? Riveting.)

Anyhow. I mention all this because today’s New York Times features a textbook example of Rhetoric Reporting That Is Actually Worthwhile. The piece, courtesy of NYT Obama-trailer Jeff Zeleny, reports on a speech about the economy the Democratic nominee delivered yesterday, and analyzes “whether Mr. Obama can define his candidacy around the economy, as other Democrats have done, and be seen as connecting with the struggles of Americans.”

Zeleny’s answer to his own question is: It remains to be seen. Because his story’s subtext is: How do you get people to pay attention to your message when they’ve spent the past several months willfully ignoring it? (Some telling lines, emphasis mine: “Senator Barack Obama has delivered at least four major addresses on the economy in the course of his presidential candidacy. Yet even his advisers conceded that voters might not have noticed until he spoke here Tuesday as turmoil rippled through the financial markets”; and “Mr. Obama spoke forcefully about the economy on Tuesday during a 40-minute address at the Colorado School of Mines, essentially hitting the rewind button as he reprised ideas he has offered before”; and “with Mr. Obama drawing so much early attention for his opposition to the Iraq war—not a message of economic populism—many of his economic proposals have received limited notice.”)

It’s an excellent analysis of a very real problem faced by the Obama campaign: How do you get people to listen to your message in the first place? How do you take advantage of the fact that, as Obama surrogate Tom Vilsack told Zeleny, “There is a tremendous opportunity for [Obama] at a time when undecided voters focus on the election”? Those questions are especially urgent—and they render their story’s straight-news slug especially appropriate—now that they’re pegged to a very real piece of information: the current culmination of the credit crisis. “Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. McCain won their respective nominations through their economic messages,” Zeleny notes.

Mr. Obama was a candidate of change, who campaigned on his judgment in opposing the Iraq war. And Mr. McCain largely appealed to Republicans because of his national security credentials and support for the war. The economy may not have been their initial playing field, but both have no choice but to urgently adapt.

It’s a good point—and it’ll be telling to see how both candidates do that. In the meantime, Zeleny’s piece serves as a nice model of how reporters can make their own tellings of the candidates’ rhetorical adaptations unbiased, un-egregious…and thankfully un-boring.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.