Times Misfires With Ad Story, True Or Not

Front page story focuses on political maybes

You’ve probably read about the to-and-fro between the White House and the Times over today’s cover story, headlined “Obama Advisers Weigh Ad Offensive Against the G.O.P.” (At least, that’s the headline you will find in the dead tree edition, as the online headline has been changed to “Obama Advisers Weigh Bid to Tie the G.O.P. to the Tea Party” in light of all the ruckus.) Mike Allen broke down the dispute in a “Behind the Curtain” section of today’s Politico Playbook:

NYTimes.com posted a real holy-cow story last night: “Obama Advisers Weigh Ad Assault Against the G.O.P.” The lead: “President Obama’s political advisers, looking for ways to help Democrats and alter the course of the midterm elections in the final weeks, are considering a national advertising campaign that would cast the Republican Party as all but taken over by Tea Party extremists, people involved in the discussion said.” It was the lead story of the paper, and Drudge broke out a two-line banner: “OBAMA ADVISERS WEIGH AD ASSAULT AGAINST ‘TEA PARTY.’”

—Before we had even seen the article, the White House told us in unusually specific terms that it was “100 percent inaccurate.” We were even give a sampling of the top Obama advisers who said they had never heard of the idea of a national ad buy. Lo and behold, the story morphed overnight into “Obama Aides Weigh Bid to Tie the G.O.P. to the Tea Party’…

—The West Wing remains unsatisfied. A White House official: “The Times is just flat-out, 100 percent wrong….”

—Times Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet responds: ‘The piece is accurate.’

Who’s telling the truth?

It’s hard to say, given the Times’s reliance on anonymous sources and the White House’s lack of a rebuttal beyond the “100 percent wrong” statement. But while the truth of the matter is an important question (and we doubt the story was a complete fabrication), we’d ask another equally important one: Why is this story on the front page of the Times in the first place?

The Times has essentially produced a print version of a conversation you might hear on Morning Joe—a weighing up of the benefits and drawbacks for Democratic midterm candidates of a Tea Party-focused ad campaign that may or may not be happening (and, given the White House’s vehement denials, looks like it won’t be). From the piece:

Democrats are divided. The party’s House and Senate campaign committees are resistant, not wanting to do anything that smacks of nationalizing the midterm elections when high unemployment and the drop in Mr. Obama’s popularity have made the climate so hostile to Democrats. Endangered Congressional candidates want any available money to go to their localized campaigns.

…Proponents say a national ad campaign, most likely on cable television, would complement those individual campaigns and give Democrats a chance to redefine the stakes. The Democratic strategist said voters did not now see much threat to them from a Republican takeover of Congress, even though some Tea Party-backed candidates and other Republicans have taken positions that many voters consider extreme, like shutting down the government to get their way, privatizing Social Security and Medicare and ending unemployment insurance.

For anyone who takes a casual glance at sites like Politico, this story of the Dems’ internal dynamic has been stale since long before Christine O’Donnell came along. And for anyone who doesn’t, the story is appallingly irrelevant; the usual excessive pap about tactics and strategy when voters just want to know who’s going to best steer the economy and how.

The story people should be focusing on today sits just to the reader’s left of that piece on the Times’s front page: Motoko Rich’s very well reported look at unemployment among those over fifty-five. It is framed around the story of fifty-seven-year-old Patricia Reid, a college-educated former analyst and auditor at Boeing who, “four years after losing her job…cannot, in her darkest moments, escape a nagging thought: she may never work again.” She is a character (and a named source) whose story has an undisputable truth, and who speaks loudly to the issues driving the economic climate the Dems are strategizing to turn around.

After other recent downturns, older people who lost jobs fretted about how long it would take to return to the work force and worried that they might never recover their former incomes. But today, because it will take years to absorb the giant pool of unemployed at the economy’s recent pace, many of these older people may simply age out of the labor force before their luck changes.

For Ms. Reid, it has been four years of hunting — without a single job offer. She buzzes energetically as she describes the countless applications she has lobbed through the Internet, as well as the online courses she is taking to burnish her software skills.

Still, when she is pressed, her can-do spirit falters.

“There are these fears in the background, and they are suppressed,” said Ms. Reid, who is now selling some of her jewelry and clothes online and is late on some credit card payments. “I have had nightmares about becoming a bag lady,” she said. “It could happen to anyone. So many people are so close to it, and they don’t even realize it.”

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.