In Ohio, barbs traded on China trade

Cincinnati Enquirer helps readers sort through a few

OHIO — President Obama came back to the Buckeye State Monday for his 12th visit this year just as his administration announced it was filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization against China for subsidizing the auto parts that the country exports.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Stephen Koff, courtesy of “senior administration officials,” on Sunday broke the news of the WTO complaint, noting that “the auto industry is already playing a role in Obama’s campaign against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, especially in Ohio.” Indeed, as the New York Times reported Saturday, Obama and Romney are airing “dueling ads” in manufacturing-heavy Ohio and other key states, “trad[ing] accusations over who is softer on China, and who is more to blame for sending American jobs there.” The Times’s Jeremy W. Peters did a solid job breaking down the competing claims, examining what the ads say and, importantly, don’t say.

So, Ohio’s reporters had a good sense, in advance of Obama’s Monday visit, of some of the manufacturing-related messages the president would likely bring to his stops in Cincinnati and Columbus (and the counter-messages they would no doubt receive from the Romney campaign). How did they fare covering Monday’s messages?

Readers of the Columbus Dispatch got plenty of claims and counter-claims—on taxes and China—but no help from the paper navigating through them. The Blade of Toledo, too, largely left it to their readers to make sense of Obama’s jabs at Romney on outsourcing and taxes and Romney surrogate Sen. Marco Rubio’s jabs at Obama on China and the debt. The Dayton Daily News ran an Associated Press account chock full of “barbs” the campaigns traded on China but short on guidance for readers. (There was this AP explainer on “why [China’s auto parts industry] matters.”) Cleveland’s Plain Dealer reported that the two candidates “exchanged criticisms” on China policy, among other topics, but readers got little more than “Obama said,” “Republicans said.”

In Cincinnati, the site of Obama’s first stop Monday, readers were better served thanks to the work of Gannett’s Deirdre Shesgreen, whose factchecking efforts ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Obviously Shesgreen—who writes from Washington, DC, for Gannett’s Ohio and Missouri papers—was primed. Her first post online, entitled “Fact-checking Obama’s Cincy speech,” came in at 12:51, soon after Obama’s near-noon speech, and used information from and links to, the Social Security Administration and the Tax Policy Center to walk readers through two Obama claims on tax cuts.

Her second offering, which came in an hour later, addressed the president’s remarks that the administration “brought more trade cases against China in one term than the previous administration did in two.” Shesgreen linked to a comparison of Obama’s and Romney’s China policies by the Council on Foreign Relations that, she wrote, “seems to confirm [Obama’s] claim.”

For her last online post at 3pm, Shesgreen focused on Obama’s “tout[ing]” of his administration’s WTO complaint, explaining to readers that Obama’s

pitch was a direct appeal to working-class voters in Ohio, who have been hard hit by the economic downturn. And it dovetails with Obama’s move to highlight his administration’s effort to save the U.S. auto industry, which was on the brink of collapse in 2008 before he took office.

Shesgreen interviewed Ross Eisenbrey of the left-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute, who called the White House’s filing of a WTO complaint “low-hanging fruit,” while saying the president could do much more to crack down on China. Shesgreen also cited Sean McAlinden, of the nonpartisan Center for Automotive Research, who said the WTO action, if successful, could benefit workers, but that it is impossible to say by how much. McAlinden also observed, Shesgreen wrote, that “Mexico now has at least 400,000 more auto-parts manufacturing jobs than the U.S. does.”

It’s clear from her quick-reaction postings that Shesgreen anticipated the direction the president was headed in his stump speeches. The resulting factcheck posts provided valuable information to readers, although it would have been better had they gotten wider play or been woven into the Enquirer’s main report on Obama’s Monday visit (the paper tells me that Shesgreen’s first two blog posts were combined in print into a single factchecking piece). As the pace quickens in these last six and a half weeks before the election, it would be wise for all media outlets to plan ahead in this way.

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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.