Paint-by-Numbers Reporting on the Feingold Story

The coverage of Senator Russ Feingold's proposal to censure President Bush has been pretty weak. Anyone paying attention?

It would be counterproductive for us to try to tell reporters and editors what to cover and how to cover it, but there are times when in reading through the ink given to a specific issue, we feel a distinct and disappointing sense of deja vu. This has been borne out over the past several days in the lackluster coverage of Democratic Senator Russell Feingold’s proposal to censure president Bush over the domestic wiretapping scandal.

There are a few things we can consistently count on from our national press corps. One is a commitment, however frayed, to the idea, however frayed, of objectivity, in order to leave the final decision on whom to believe up to the reader. Second is an overall lack of counterintuitive thinking, and with it a tendency toward something resembling a pack mentality. The Feingold story seems to have both in spades.

The Washington Post gives the story a ride in a front page piece this morning, but somehow the meat the reader is served doesn’t fully add up to the description on the menu.

Headlined, “A Senate Maverick Acts to Force an Issue: Democrat Feingold’s Motion to Censure the President Roils Both Parties,” the story sums up all the elements of every other story we’ve read on the issue over the past couple days. Namely, it calls Feingold a “maverick” (he’s quickly becoming the Democratic party’s John McCain in that respect, without all that pesky charisma that causes the Washington press corps’ collective heart to skip a beat every time he opens his mouth); it tells us that Republicans are essentially laughing the idea off; and that Democrats aren’t too sure what to do about the whole thing.

To wit, the Post says that “Many Democrats, while sympathetic to Feingold’s maneuver, appeared to be distancing themselves from his resolution yesterday, wary of polls showing that a majority of Americans side with the president on wiretapping tactics.”

Democrats Christopher Dodd, Joseph Biden and Harry Reid all show up in the Post piece, all trying to say as little as possible while not committing themselves to any particular stance. Obviously, if a politician isn’t going to talk, a politician isn’t going to talk, but the consequence is a piece that is pretty thin gruel. Were there no think tanks or constitutional or congressional scholars who could have helped flesh the issue out a bit more in the collective Rolodex of the Post’s 800 staffers?

The New York Times treated the censure issue in exactly the same way — which is to say superficially — yesterday, writing that Democrats are “distancing themselves” from the resolution, and that party leaders are showing “hesitancy [in] a sign they remained reluctant to challenge Mr. Bush on some national security questions even as he was struggling in public opinion polls.” Democratic response? A non-committal one-liner from minority leader Harry Reid.

ABC News said that Democrats were giving the Censure resolution “tepid support at best,” while again relying on Lieberman and Reid as barometers for party opinion. The Los Angeles Times told us on Monday that “Some of [Feingold’s] Democratic colleagues were taking a more cautious approach” to the issue.

Other than transcribing Republicans’ bellicose responses and accusations of “playing politics,” and taking note of the Democrats’ refusal to engage the issue, no reporter out there (that we’ve seen) has seen fit to dig into the issue in any substantive way. The story is only a few days old, and we’ve already read enough paint-by-numbers pieces phoned in from reporters on the Hill to last a lifetime.

Granted, the resolution doesn’t have much of a chance of passing, but it’s still a pretty serious charge that Feingold is throwing out there and, chances of its success notwithstanding, it’s a matter worth studying in some detail.

Especially if, in so doing, the public can be offered something more than just the crowing of some Capitol Hill gasbag saying just enough not to get in trouble with the party elders.

Update: The above notwithstanding, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. The Washington Post’s Dana Millbank weighs in with the considered wisdom of the Democratic party’s keenest minds.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.