Assessing the Cordray Coverage in Ohio

Most papers missed a chance to go beyond the partisan rhetoric

OHIO —President Obama visited the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio Wednesday to tout his economic policy, but the press devoted much of its ink to former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray.

With good reason.

Obama’s visit amounted to an early stop on the 2012 campaign trail (and his 16th Ohio visit since getting elected), and his speech was presented as an economic address. But the president used the visit to snub obstructionist Senate Republicans and publicly appoint Cordray as the chief of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Ohio’s major news organizations zeroed in on the president’s Congressional end-around, pointing out that Obama made the appointment while Congress is, arguably, in recess—which would mean that Cordray could serve until the end of 2013 without being confirmed by the Senate.

The president’s move was met with fierce GOP criticism, to which the White House responded in kind, with each side arguing that the other had bent or even broken the rules surrounding Senate confirmation and recess appointments.

At the root of the debate was a surprisingly simple but complicated question: Is Congress in, or is it out of, session? Most of the papers here did a good job explaining the partisan viewpoint on each side of that coin. But some did a better job than others in sorting out the facts in a way that would allow readers to evaluate the rhetoric from both sides.

Senate Republicans, who filibustered Cordray’s appointment in an effort to force changes that would restructure the bureau, are outraged that Obama acted on his own because, in their view, Congress has not “officially” gone into recess. Instead, every few days, legislators have conducted brief, informal sessions with no business agenda—a move designed to prevent Obama from making recess appointments. The White House has called the tactic a “gimmick” and taken the stance that Congress is effectively in recess, permitting executive appointments.

The administration clearly wanted to use Cordray’s appointment to the watchdog agency to call attention to the president’s get-tough stance with Congressional Republicans.

It worked. The focus for most of the news outlets was the partisan push-pull, and what it said about Obama’s 2012 campaign.

For instance, Cleveland’s hometown newspaper, The Plain Dealer, wasted little time fanning the flames with juicy quotes. By the fifth paragraph, the paper was quoting GOP National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus calling the appointment “crazy” and “unreal,” and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accusing the president of arrogance. Not to be outdone, House Speaker John Boehner called Cordray’s appointment an “unprecedented power grab” that could have a “devastating effect” on constitutional checks and balances.

But though it was buried near the bottom of the story, the P-D eventually weighed in on the legal context, providing the fullest picture for readers. The paper noted that two former Bush administration lawyers had previously weighed in on the president’s side of the legal debate, and that a Brookings Institution scholar and a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond also thought Obama had the upper hand. That doesn’t settle the case—and the P-D might have noted that even some liberal observers don’t think Obama is in the clear here—but the legal arguments help clarify the political battle and provide context for some of the rhetoric, such as Boehner’s assertion that the move was unconstitutional. (The P-D could have done more for readers by actually linking to the arguments it cited, though, such as a 2010 op-ed column by those Bush administration lawyers and a blog post by Sarah Binder, the Brookings scholar.)

Elsewhere in the state, The Cincinnati Enquirer opened its story with perspective from Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. The focus was to show how Obama might score politically with the Cordray appointment by putting the spotlight on a gridlocked Congress. That’s good politics context, and the newspaper also gave each side its due on the recess appointment issue. But after the partisan back-and-forth, the article circled back to the politics, simply noting that “the constitutional questions are murky.” Pushing further into that legal territory could have helped clarify the issues for readers, and help them make sense of the political rhetoric.

Meanwhile, The Columbus Dispatch’s coverage focused on the unfolding events in Cleveland and the partisan he-said, she-said about Obama’s maneuver. While the paper did a nice job outlining Cordray’s background and was able to grab several quotes from him, it did not frame the bigger issue in either a political or legal context, and no independent observers weighed in. In fact, the only reference to a potential court battle were quotes from Republicans who said Obama’s actions were potentially illegal.

And the Toledo Blade took much the same route. Its story had some good background and event color, but was shy on context. Along with some outraged quotes from Republican critics, the newspaper simply points out that the appointment “could be challenged” in court.

In fairness, the announcement of Cordray’s recess appointment was unanticipated before Wednesday morning, and at events like these, reporters on the scene are up against the clock. But Cordray was an important figure in Ohio who is assuming a major national role, and the fight over his appointment had been brewing for months. A little more preparation—and some help from the newsroom troops—might have allowed Ohio’s papers to offer readers more context for the story.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.