The Horse’s Mouth

Campaign rally stories should be careful describing the supporter ranks

Here’s a cardinal rule of journalistic writing: Don’t float a quote.

But the San Francisco Chronicle does just that, in a report on Sarah Palin’s appearance in Nevada (first in Reno and then in Henderson). Calling each source by his or her newly adopted GOP name (Charles the Retired Physician, Esther the Housewife, etc.) and referring to homemade signs, the article paints a shining portrait of Palin’s effects on her supporters (my emphasis):

They were among the ranks of what might now be called ‘Sarah’s Army’—conservative and proudly wearing that Average Joe, ‘pro-American’ label—who lined up for blocks and blocks outside the Henderson Pavilion in this Las Vegas suburb to cheer on their candidate.

The reference, of course, is to Palin’s comment, made last week while campaigning in North Carolina, that she loves to visit “pro-American areas” of the country. The governor has gotten a lot of flack for the statement, which seemed to imply that there were other areas of the country that were not pro-American. (Her remark has also elicited some nods of agreement.) And any account that uses the descriptive “pro-American” should explain its provenance. Describing a Palin-friendly crowd as such is irresponsible; the term comes from Palin, and should end with her.

The “pro-American” quote needs identification. It also needs context. Rally stories, if they’re not Candidate A said this, Candidate B said that accounts, are generally driven by characterizations of the crowd. (How’s it feeling about this? That? What color would it produce on a mood ring?) But those descriptions require specificity (see the “pro-American” gripe) and relevant context if they are to provide any illumination for readers.

As we’ve noted before, it may be unfair to lament missing context, especially because atmosphere-at-rallies stories are often filed without additional desk reporting. But take a glance at the following requisite paragraphs of context in the Chronicle account:

Palin… has plunged with gusto into her role as the populist rabble-rouser of the GOP presidential team—lambasting Sen. Barack Obama for “palling around with terrorists,” dismissing his economic plan as “socialism” and lending her voice to robo calls that have even some leading Republicans wincing.

Although Team McCain’s go-to woman has been skewered by some prominent conservatives—and a few polls suggest she could be a drag on the ticket among independents and female voters—there’s something about Sarah Palin that continues to fuel her popularity among the conservative grassroots.

While the attempt to provide some sort of background here is commendable, it’s also important to recognize that context isn’t solely about listing old egregious errors or potable campaign mantras by way of Palin insta-quotes (on palling around with terrorists—check! and on socialism—check!). Nor, at this late stage in the game, is it about providing the general “there’s something about Sarah” explanation for the governor’s demagogic popularity. Right now, the relevant frame should involve the endpoint of Election Day, and any background information provided in a piece should exist to help readers understand how a Nevada rally fits into that timeline.

Avoiding generalizations when it comes to crowd descriptions serves that ultimate goal. The Chronicle story tells us that the Nevada rallies were “crowded with Republicans who proudly identified with the regular-guy persona of Joe the Plumber.” And its author, Carla Marinucci, does begin her story by pinpointing several supporters who held up signs: “‘Jerry the Plumber’ showed up here Tuesday with a homemade sign to identify himself. And so did ‘Wendy the Plumber’s Daughter,’ ‘Sandra the Homeschool Mom’ and ‘Michael the Student.’” But the article, which is titled “Sarah’s Army rallies for Palin in Nevada,” also uses terms like “Average Joe” or “pro-American” more loosely to describe the crowd at large.

Labels like these perpetuate a kind of falsely descriptive narrative, one that seems to characterize an event in appropriately current terms, but which in fact runs the risk of using campaign argot wholesale. Specificity is key. Given that “pro-American,” in the Chronicle’s case, is a term that came from Palin, it’s irresponsible to ascribe that term to the rally as a whole. And if the crowd was full of “I am pro-American” signs, Marinucci should have specifically noted that. (It would be something worth noting, too.)

This isn’t to say that reporters shouldn’t use such labels on occasion; they’re catchy, and make for great headlines. But it is to say that they should be careful about how they describe and define crowded rallies. If supporters take up candidates’ lines themselves, then reporters should clarify the terms of the appropriation. Otherwise, it’s rather like taking words from a politician’s mouth and using them to corral and blanket the crowd.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.