The Plumber’s Tale

Alas, poor Joe, hapless victim of the media

The emails I occasionally receive from the McCain campaign aren’t generally funny. Glorifying as they do the us-versus-them mentality that has become a hallmark of so many of both campaigns’ recent communications, they’re often rather distressing. Their subtext is often double, suggesting at once victimization and empowerment (as in: “The liberal, elite media are bashing Sarah Palin for no reason. Help stop their attacks: Donate now!”). Which: fascinating, sure. Revealing—oh, totally. But funny? Not so much.

And yet, a few moments ago, my inbox received a fairly funny message, sent from an article-less “McCain-Palin Team” and slugged…”I’m Joe the Plumber.”

Well. Thinking this must be some kind of joke—or, at the very least, an urgent message from a plumber from the Cote d’Ivoire who’s just inherited millions and will give me a cut if I help him invest it—I took the bait, and clicked. And was greeted with this:

At which point I realized…Not. A. Joke. Despite everything we’ve learned about Joe the Plumber since the final presidential debate catapulted him to fame last week—that he doesn’t really fall into the tax bracket whose implications he discussed with Obama; that he owes over $1,000 in back-taxes; that he’s not, in fact, a licensed plumber—the McCain campaign is still treating Wurzelbacher as the populist Everyman whose life story is an inspiration to Hard-Working Americans everywhere…and who, in the three words of pop-culture shorthand, will remind those Hard-Working Americans of the four little words that Barack Obama uttered when speaking to Joe: “spreading the wealth around.” “Joe the Plumber” is a stand-in for, among other things, “Obama the Socialist.”

And as Joe’s story has played out in the media—from those first, gleeful stories about him to the revelations about his background—Joe’s story has assumed another dimension: “Joe the Plumber” has become, apparently, a stand-in for another three-fer: “Journalists Are Jerks.”

The media, after all, had the audacity to probe the background of the man who would be Everyman. They’re the ones who found out about the whole not-technically-a-plumber thing and all the back-taxes stuff. Vicious. They’re the ones to blame for Joe’s transformation from a symbol of empowerment (Look how he built himself up!) to one of victimization (Look how they’ve torn him down!). What average Joe wouldn’t empathize with this literal average Joe?

Take this take from Byron York, writing in The National Review this morning about why Wurzelbacher has become a figure of empathy for so many:

The second reason Joe the Plumber resonates with the crowds is what his experience says about the media. Everybody here seems acutely aware of the once-over Wurzelbacher received from the press after his chance encounter with Obama was reported, first on Fox News, and then mentioned by McCain at last week’s presidential debate. Wurzelbacher found himself splashed across newspapers and cable shows, many of which reported that he didn’t have a plumber’s license, that he wasn’t a member of the plumbers’ union, that he had a lien against him for $1,182 in state taxes, and that he failed to comprehend what many commentators apparently felt was the indisputable fact that Barack Obama would lower his taxes, not raise them. As the people here in Woodbridge saw it, Joe was a guy who asked Barack Obama an inconvenient question — and for his troubles suddenly found himself under investigation by the media.

In the audience Saturday, there were plenty of people who were mad about it. There was real anger at this rally, but it wasn’t, as some erroneous press reports from other McCain rallies have suggested, aimed at Obama. It was aimed at the press.

This is as telling as it is utterly baffling. York is suggesting—actually, he’s simply assuming—that information itself is partisan. And that the most basic impulse of political journalism—to report things about public figures—is politically motivated. There are myriad ways that such an assumption is wrong, and those are obvious enough. And there are many other instances one could point to of partisanship seeping into our attitudes toward the act of fact-gathering itself. But, still. To hear the generally respected York so clearly prioritize his role as a partisan over his role as a journalist is, to say the least, troubling.

Just as it’s troubling to see other journalists treat Joe as a symbol not of populist empowerment, but of populist outrage. When Wurzelbacher appeared on Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor’s oddly Oprah-esque new Fox News talk show, this weekend, he was joined by Steven Moore, a writer for The Wall Street Journal, who had this to say:

Ladies and gentlemen, aren’t you outraged by the way the left-wing attack machine and the media, The New York Times and the left establishment, has tried to destroy a man who creates jobs, he works for a living, he’s served this country. This is an outrage, don’t you agree with me?

To which the crowd exploded in applause.

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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.