NEVADA — One of the moments in the 2012 presidential race that we all know was coming arrived this week: the Obama campaign launched its first round of attacks on Mitt Romney over his tenure at Bain Capital.
Unsurprisingly, there was a swing-state emphasis to the offensive. In addition to new TV commercials and a website targeting “Romney economics,” the President’s people organized news conferences in three battleground states—Iowa, Nevada, and Ohio—using labor leaders and prominent Democrats to attack the record of the presumptive Republican nominee. Their focus was Stage Stores, a chain of clothing stores that filed for bankruptcy and reportedly shed 6,000 jobs after Bain sold most of its interest in the company at a huge profit in the late 1990s.
The Obama campaign’s strategy also posed a challenge for reporters at local media outlets: Would they take the story served up on a silver platter, or get deeper into the complexities and provide the necessary balance? A look at some of the coverage shows a mixed response.
The president’s team was likely happy with the story by Las Vegas Sun reporter David McGrath Schwartz, posted online Tuesday and in print Wednesday. Here’s the lead:
With President Barack Obama’s campaign launching an offensive to paint Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s time as head of a private equity firm in a negative light, here’s the Nevada connection: Between 2000 and 2002, Stage Stores, a clothing chain, shut down three stores in rural Nevada as part of a bankruptcy.
The stores’ closures came after Bain Capital had sold off its interest in the company in 1999. Obama’s campaign said the chain had been saddled with debt after an aggressive expansion under Bain, and after Bain made $170 million profit from the investment.
That’s a straight recitation of the Obama attack, with a helpful pointer to a local connection. Then, after an acknowledgement that it’s unclear how many of those jobs were actually lost in Nevada, there’s this passage:
In Winnemucca, 166 miles northeast of Reno, Rich Stone, owner of a dry cleaner next to the former Stage Store, remembers the retailer as a fine fit for the community.
Since it closed, residents of the small town of 8,900 and surrounding Humboldt County can’t buy non-Western-themed clothes there. They have to travel to Reno or shop online, Stone said.
“It’s a void,” said Stone, who is also a city councilman and a Republican. “We lose a lot of sales tax revenue.”
In its place now is a Boot Barn, which sells Western apparel and boots.
Stone was philosophical about the store’s closure.
“That’s America. That’s capitalism,” he said. “If somebody’s not making money, they’re not going to do it. You’re not going to keep it open as welfare for people without jobs. That’s just common sense.”
Kudos to the Sun for finding a local person to talk about the local angle, and Stone seems to have no particular axe to grind. But there’s an obvious question here, lurking in that last quote, that could be made more explicit: if the Stage locations have been closed for 10 years and no similar stores have sprung up to replace them, maybe we can’t pin their closure entirely on Bain’s alleged financial malfeasance?
That’s followed by some boilerplate reply from the Romney campaign and some comments from an academic about the merits and demerits of private equity—all well and good. But as I reached the end of the article, I was surprised by its last paragraph:
Currently, Stage has 13,000 employees and 800 stores in the United States, according to the company’s website. That’s twice as many as after it filed for bankruptcy.
So Stage Stores has achieved a remarkable comeback, which seems like too salient a fact to bury at the end of the story. That revival happened after Bain gave up control of the company, of course, but so did the bankruptcy. And while there may be a good argument that Romney’s crew deserves the blame but not the credit, that case isn’t compellingly made in the Sun’s story.
(I shared my concerns with Tom Gorman, managing editor at the Sun, and asked about the process that led to the article. Gorman declined to comment. In an email, he wrote to me, “If we break down the back story of one story, and then we’re asked about another, and then another, where would it end?”)