COLORADO — This state became the center of the battle over outsourcing last week, when Mitt Romney, responding to charges from the Obama campaign about his role at Bain Capital, launched his counter-attack at a July 10 campaign stop in Grand Junction.
Accusing the president’s stimulus program of funding US companies that make products overseas, Romney told the crowd, “If there’s an outsourcer-in-chief, it’s the president of the United States, not the guy that’s running to replace him.”
It was a juicy sound bite, and while most media outlets in Colorado duly reported it, in too many cases, their stories ended there. Few news organizations here put in the work of explaining to their audiences how both the Romney and Obama camps have distorted their opponent’s outsourcing records. (Not that thin coverage of the admittedly complicated outsourcing issue is unique to Colorado media, as CJR’s Brendan Nyhan demonstrated last week.)
At KDVR Fox Channel 31 in Denver, coverage of the outsourcing story improved over the course of last week. The station’s first report, on July 10, sounded like the account of a boxing match. Political reporter Eli Stokols focused on Romney’s “shift to a more defiant, strident tone, punching back now at Obama’s attacks against his own record.”
Obama’s “Outsourced” ad got some brief screen-time, as a lead-in to Romney’s “outsource-in-chief” line. But while the segment made clear that the two camps were trading outsourcing charges, it never informed viewers that many of those charges had been challenged by independent fact checkers.
When I told Stokols I thought his and other local stories on Romney’s speech were short on substance, he responded that TV reporters face several constraints. “With local TV news, they’re only going to give me, at most, two to two-and-a-half minutes. Tuesday, I basically had time to say Romney was in Grand Junction and here’s what he said: For the first time, he called Obama outsourcer-in-chief. That’s about it. TV does not allow for the kind of depth you might get in a magazine or newspaper piece.”
Stokols also argued that it’s unfair to judge a station’s coverage based on just one report. “You just can’t do everything in two minutes—sometimes it’s more of a narrative that takes place over a week or a month,” he said. But as critical issues take shape in a campaign, he added, “it’s incumbent on reporters to explain more—not just follow the attacks being made—but distill for viewers whether there’s any merit to them.”
Those are fair points. And on July 12, Stokols did produce an updated and significantly improved segment, which reported that Obama’s ads had been debunked by factcheckers; discussed that morning’s wave-making Boston Globe report about Securities and Exchange Commission documents indicating Romney remained legally at the helm of Bain as late as 2002, after he said he left to run the Salt Lake City Olympics; and presented a Republican spokesman to challenge the implication of the Globe story and back up Romney’s account. This segment wasn’t conclusive about which campaign had the better of the argument, but it did present much of the relevant evidence that had then surfaced.
To temper that praise a bit: in the absence of further evidence to back it up, Stokols probably should have resisted the temptation to relay the Obama camp’s insinuation that Romney may have committed a felony by lying to the SEC (which the Washington Post’s factchecker awarded three Pinocchios). Meanwhile, I don’t believe Stokols got around to bringing the same attention to Romney’s weak “outsourcer-in-chief” line (which, to be fair, didn’t drive nearly as many headlines). Still, he deserves credit for his update of the story, which in the end appeared more engaging, on point, and comprehensive than other local reports.
What about the other coverage of the outsourcing back-and-forth in this key swing state? Grand Junction is on the other side of Colorado from Denver, but the Denver Post did have a correspondent at Romney’s July 10 speech, and it published a story that covered the basics of the talk. Unfortunately, while the story featured Romney’s “outsourcer-in-chief” counterattack, it didn’t examine the distortions on which that line rests.
In fairness, Romney’s use of that line was new, and the article was no doubt filed on deadline. But the Post article also let a statement by Colorado AFL-CIO Director Mike Cerbo—that Romney put “personal profit over other people’s lives as evidenced by his extreme outsourcing of American jobs during his time at Bain Capital”—stand unchallenged, even though factcheckers had by then shown Romney’s wasn’t directly involved with shipping jobs overseas.
In contrast, Shaun Boyd, political reporter for CBS Channel 4 in Denver, filed an in-depth “Reality Check” on Obama’s ads on the same day Romney spoke in Grand Junction. Boyd’s report stated clearly that many of the president’s claims were misleading.
The story shifted somewhat after that point, of course, with new information coming to light and the debate moving from Romney’s personal involvement—which the Obama camp had initially focused on—to his ultimate responsibility for Bain’s actions.
Given the story’s evolving character, I was hoping to see a complete account over the weekend in the Post, the state’s flagship paper, that fleshed out its earlier deadline story and helped readers make sense of what had been reported elsewhere. Those hopes were disappointed. But we’ll keep in mind Stokols’s point about not evaluating coverage in isolation, and expect to see a fuller discussion of this central message war—and the facts that lie beneath the claims—as the campaign unfolds.