What’s the right way to cover Joe the Plumber?

Reporters in northern Ohio bring scrutiny to bear on an unusual candidate

OHIO — There’s no telling how handy Joe the Plumber is with a wrench, but he’s certainly mastered the art of drawing media attention.

He’s garnered plenty since first popping up on the national radar during the 2008 presidential campaign, after initiating a sidewalk exchange with candidate Barack Obama over tax policy.

Joe, a candidate for Congress here in Ohio whose birth name is Samuel Wurzelbacher, is a shoot-from-the-lip character, prone to provocative and even outlandish statements. He drew local headlines recently by claiming in a letter to the Christian Broadcast Network that Obama’s mother was an atheist and both the president’s parents were communists, and by saying that Obama’s “sudden” conversion to Christianity was the catalyst for his election.

And just this week, Wurzelbacher posted on his blog a videotape of himself wandering around outside the White House, saying he wanted to drop in on Obama to continue their 2008 conversation. That drew some coverage, too.

Wurzelbacher is the Republican nominee in a northern Ohio lakeshore district after narrowly winning his primary in March. That makes him a legitimate, major party candidate worthy of news coverage. But he is also a bit of a loose canon, which means it’s worth examining the media’s responsibility as it covers his over-the-top rhetoric. (One more example of that rhetoric: in a March interview with The Blade of Toledo, Wurzelbacher said that if the Affordable Care Act is ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, “I’ll go so far as anybody who had voted for it… has committed treason.” His general election opponent is among those who voted for the bill.)

That’s especially the case because while Wurzelbacher is a long-shot candidate—his opponent is Marcy Kaptur, running for her 16th Congressional term in a redrawn district crammed with registered Democrats—he could be a force to be reckoned with in other ways. Harlan Spector outlined the dynamic in a February story for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.

Political strategist Mary Anne Sharkey said a Wurzelbacher victory in the general election will be “nearly impossible” because redistricting packed so many Democrats into the lakeshore district. But Joe the Plumber remains a valued figure in Republican politics, said Sharkey, a former Plain Dealer editorial page editor. He should be important to the Republican presidential campaign in Ohio.

“I don’t think any of them (Republicans) view him as someone who can win the election, but they do view him as someone with an important voice in Northern Ohio,” Sharkey said.

That voice seems likely to produce some high-volume criticisms of Obama in a swing state important enough for the president to “officially” launch his campaign at Ohio State University on Saturday, his second campus visit in just over a month.

And that means it’s up to the media in northern Ohio to speak in a loud voice of its own whenever Wurzelbacher’s unorthodox statements—or those of any other public figure—turn out to be unsubstantiated.

So far, the journalistic record has been pretty solid. One example of trying to get the record straight comes from Tom Troy, political reporter for The Blade. In his article about Wurzelbacher’s CBN letter, Troy looked back at Obama’s books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, and tracked down Wurzelbacher’s campaign manager, Reece Collins, to identify the sources for the claims about Obama’s parents, as well as a (true) claim that the president in his youth experimented with drugs.

There was one point on which Troy wasn’t able to provide irrefutable clarity. His article included this passage:

Mr. Collins offered no proof that the parents were communists, although a number of Web sites explore alleged Marxist and communist influences on his parents and on Mr. Obama himself.

In an interview this week, Troy said that a looming deadline prevented him from doing an exhaustive search of the biographies of Obama’s parents, but he emailed two Obama biographers and two spokesmen for Obama for America/Ohio, and either got no response or a refusal to comment.

Despite the effort, the result was a weak spot in the story. But the next day on his blog, Troy cited a finding by PolitiFact Ohio that the claim was indeed false—a nice example of one reporter pointing his readers to good work by another.

PolitiFact Ohio is a project of The Plain Dealer. Sabrina Eaton, a reporter in that paper’s Washington, D.C. bureau who also covers Wurzelbacher, wrote via email that she has forwarded Wurzelbacher’s questionable comments to her PolitiFact colleagues—and then provided a heads-up to his campaign that the statements were under scrutiny.

“I regarded that as a courtesy akin to a plumber advising clients not to put bacon grease down their drains,” Eaton wrote. “So Wurzelbacher had adequate notice that his controversial remarks would be challenged.”

Even with those challenges, it’s worth asking what the “right” amount of coverage of Wurzelbacher is, especially if he repeatedly makes false or exaggerated statements. In a March piece for CJR about Joe Arpaio, the high-profile sheriff in Arizona’s Maricopa County who held a bizarre press conference about “birther” allegations, Brendan Nyhan urged restraint in reporting on unsupported claims, warning that:

…repeating falsehoods can create a feeling of fluency that causes people to misperceive them as true over time. Also, if people come to believe Arpaio, the effects are difficult to undo. Misperceptions are difficult to correct (PDF) and can have persistent effects on subsequent opinions and attitudes.

At the same time, Nyhan acknowledged, “journalists may believe it is necessary to cover Arpaio’s statements given his stature as a public official.”

Troy emphasized that Wurzelbacher’s statements are not accepted at face value, but he acknowledged that the candidate may get more attention than most of Kaptur’s past opponents have received.

“We do not give him carte blanche to say things in The Blade, but he has a right to his opinion,” Troy said. “Maybe we give him more coverage than normal because Joe the Plumber has a national interest. He speaks for a lot of people and he has a right to his opinion.”

Over email, Eaton wrote that she believes Wurzelbacher has been treated as any first-time candidate who has a degree of fundraising power and name recognition would be, with coverage including stories about him collecting a salary from his campaign and failing to file timely papers with the FEC.

Both Troy and Eaton likened Wurzelbacher to Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a liberal Democrat who lost to Kaptur in the primary for the redrawn 9th Congressional District, and who also has a bit of national following.

“Dennis Kucinich’s efforts to impeach Dick Cheney had no realistic chance of bearing fruit, but we covered it and many other Kucinich efforts (like wanting to establish a Department of Peace),” Eaton wrote. “That’s because our readers need to know what the people who want to represent them in Congress are saying and doing.”

A similar point was made by Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center.

“The media do have an obligation to cover what the candidate says,” Jurkowitz said in an interview. “If it is a no-prisoners style of candidacy, that is part of how he is as a candidate, and the idea of downplaying an essential part of that candidacy would be withholding information on what his positions are or what he believes.”

But it’s important that the coverage be thoughtful and substantive, rather than using outlandish comments to fill the insatiable news hole of the 24-7 media environment, Jurkowitz added.

“There is an appetite for controversy that fuels news and the cycle burns through at an incredibly high rate,” he said. “If a candidate is making a series of controversial statements, obvious ways to cover it … are to go to neutral parties or non partisan unimpeachable sources … and talk about putting the candidates in context.”

At the same time, the media must recognize, and report, that these kinds of statements can be nothing more than a long-range campaign ploy, said Steve Myers, managing editor of Poynter.org.

“In the course of work, if a candidate says one outlandish thing after another, the media should recognize that as a strategy,” Myers said in an interview.

Time will tell if that’s Wurzelbacher’s plan. In the meantime, reporters here should continue weighing his rhetoric to achieve some story balance, while remaining mindful that their coverage of Wurzelbacher is supposed to help inform the public.

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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.