Balancing on The Wire

Not long after Campaign Desk went online, we got a perceptive letter from a reader lamenting the dominance of wire stories where she lives.

“I can’t tell you how critically important it is that [wire] stories be as accurate and spin-free as possible,” she wrote. “In my part of the country, northern Colorado, these stories are the backbone of world and national reporting in our local papers … [they] are, frequently, all we have to trust and rely on for explanation and detail.”

We thought about that letter as we charted the emergence onto the national scene over the past couple of days of one Paula Diane Harris, who is the president of a “web-based for-profit corporation” in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, named for civil rights leader Andrew Young. Harris, as you may know, made her own bid for 15 minutes of fame when she solemnly told the Associated Press that “John Kerry is not a black man.” Harris was protesting Kerry’s (obviously rhetorical) claim that he wants to be America’s “second black president,” after Bill Clinton. (Clinton was given that title by author Toni Morrison in a half-satirical, half-admiring 1998 New Yorker article.)

Who is Harris, anyway? According to her online bio, she has been active in the NAACP for about seven years, and in 2000 opened the first NAACP office in Harrisburg. That makes her, by most accounts, a regional activist speaking to a mostly local constituency. It does not confer upon her a status AP seems to want to grant her as the voice of Black America.

We ignored this story when it emerged on Monday, figuring the media was savvy enough to realize Harris was virtually alone in hammering Kerry for attempting to don the cloak that Morrison had draped across Clinton’s shoulders. (As Nick Confessore pointed out, “He was pandering!”)

But we hadn’t counted on the echo chamber kicking in as swiftly as it did: First, Fox News Channel quoted Harris on air twice (with one anchor mistakenly referring to her as a man named “Paul LaDianne Harris.”) Next, MSNBC had her on for a live interview yesterday. At last count, more than 60 print and broadcast outlets had picked up the story.

We couldn’t reach AP’s Siobhan McDonough, who wrote the story, to find out exactly how Paula Diane Harris came to her attention. But we couldn’t help but reflect upon the power of even the most anonymous AP reporter, as evidenced by that lonely reader in Colorado, to manufacture a controversy by highlighting a juicy quote uttered by a low-visibility source.

Now that many regional papers fill their pages with wire reports — often just from the AP — and local TV news outlets rely on the same for their national news, it’s the wire reports that most impact viewers and readers in hundreds of counties that lie somewhere between La Guardia Airport in New York and LAX in Los Angeles.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.