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.