Stop That Knee From Jerking

The lead story in today’s New York Times is a report on the latest Times/CBS News poll, which shows a tie between the presidential candidates. It’s a solid piece that acknowledges other polls as well as the Times’ own, and it’s accompanied by an informative chart breaking down those polled by gender, age, party affiliation and geographic location. But, inexplicably, midway through the article, authors Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder pause to give us four paragraphs of campaign blather elicited by the poll results.

To wit:

Mr. Bush’s aides said that the poll findings demonstrated that Americans were not prepared to turn out Mr. Bush for a candidate about whom, they said, voters clearly had strong reservations.

“There is a distrust and a reluctance for the public to accept him as being president,” Matthew Dowd, a senior Bush adviser, said. “I don’t think they like his policies. The public through the course of this campaign — it’s not like they haven’t gotten to know him.”

Mr. Kerry’s aides said they were heartened by the poll findings, and said the discontent with Mr. Bush meant that undecided voters were on the verge of flocking to Mr. Kerry.

“I don’t think voters have reservations anymore,” said Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry adviser. “These voters are going to make up their own mind. The poll gives every indication that when they do make up their mind, they are going to Kerry.”

Try as we might, we can’t figure out why Nagourney and Elder stopped to toss spin from the Bush and Kerry campaigns — particularly spin this generic — into their story. It certainly doesn’t help readers understand the poll; if anything, it reads as if the Times had cut away to a commercial break before resuming its article. Perhaps the “insights” from Dowd and Lockhart would have been worth including had either said something along the lines of “Damn, we’re screwed!” But optimistic spin from partisans isn’t news. Nor is the fact that “voters are going to make up their own mind.”

Nagourney earned the admiration of many media watchers (as well as his colleagues) earlier this month when he vowed to boycott “spin alley” during the presidential debates and write instead from his office, far from spinners like Dowd and Lockhart and the corrupting influence of conventional wisdom. So why, in a piece about the polls, do he and Elder fall back on this tired old one-flack-said/the-other-flack-said rhetoric?

Old habits, it seems, die hard.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.