In Iowa, a ‘flag flap’ flop?

A controversy over handling of the flag draws coverage in Cedar Rapids

IOWA — Appearances by President Obama have become a bit old-hat in Iowa, one of the nation’s most contested swing states. When Obama and Joe Biden appeared at a campaign rally on the University of Iowa campus on Sept. 7, it marked the president’s eighth trip of the year to the state.

So it was somewhat surprising to see Obama’s visit still in the news earlier this week, in the form of a detailed follow-up article that appeared on A2 in Tuesday’s Cedar Rapids Gazette, and on the paper’s website the night before. The subject? Not anything in Obama’s speech, or in Biden’s notably brief remarks, but preparations made before Obama was even in the state.

As the lede of the story put it:

Two large American flags displayed during President Barack Obama’s Iowa City campaign rally Friday may have been handled in an inappropriate manner.

Photographs show two flags appearing to be on the ground—but on a tarp in other photos provided by the Obama campaign—in preparation of the campaign stop, which included Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and their spouses.

According to the U.S. Flag Code, “The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.”

Coverage of the “flag flap,” as the incident was later dubbed, also appeared at the city’s top-rated television news station, KCRG. (The Gazette and KCRG are owned by the same parent company, SourceMedia, and share a newsroom and other resources.) The article and news segment are thorough: the story features a photo of the flags laying upon a tarp and another where the tarp can’t be seen, examines an apology and various explanations offered by the university, cites interviews with the Obama campaign and a state American Legion official, notes that the incident led to hundreds of angry comments on the university’s Facebook page, and consults the U.S. Flag Code about proper handling of the flag.

The Gazette article, written by Gregg Hennigan, also included this line, down at the end: “Conservative website reported the incident last week.” (Here’s the item in question, which The Gazette didn’t link to.) That raised a question in my mind: Why did SourceMedia, unlike the Iowa City Press-Citizen and other media outlets around the state, pursue the story? Were they taking their cues from conservative sites, or simply reporting a story that was engaging Eastern Iowans on social media?

Adam Carros, the content manager with SourceMedia who assigned the story, says the issue first came to his attention Saturday, when he noticed on the University of Iowa’s Facebook page an apology for posting a photo “in which the American flag was shown laying on the ground.” (A university spokesman later clarified that it was apologizing for photographs in which the flag only appeared to be laying on the ground.) SourceMedia staff subsequently came across The Blaze story in their reporting, he said.

Carros said the newsroom debated on Monday whether the story was worth covering, or whether to do so would just be “picking a fight.” The staff ultimately decided it was newsworthy because respect for the flag is an important issue to veterans groups in the area, he said.

Beth Malicki, the KCRG anchor who read the story on air, said that both the online response and the university’s apology made the episode newsworthy. And had the station not reported the story, she said, some viewers would likely have accused KCRG of being biased towards Obama; the station occasionally receives bias complaints from both sides of the political spectrum, depending on the story, she added.

And both Carros and Malicki said that the intent of the coverage was to lay out the facts—that some people were upset, and the issue was disputed—rather than to state conclusions.

While SourceMedia’s coverage itself didn’t examine whether the episode warranted the “controversy” treatment, The Gazette did pose that question to readers on Wednesday, asking on its website whether the issue was “serious or overblown.” Most of the roughly one dozen commenters who weighed in went with overblown.

If that sounds like not very many commenters, given the apparent outpouring of activity on Facebook, Malicki said she hadn’t heard much response to the KCRG segment either, but she isn’t surprised. She speculated that because the presidential candidates are so often in the state, and so many outrageous claims are made in political advertisements that air during the newscasts, viewers take the political news being reported as mundane.

Though I’d answer “overblown” to The Gazette’s query—and though I hope SourceMedia will take CJR’s past advice to “ignore the bias bullies” to heart—I was surprised to be at least partially persuaded by Carros and Malicki’s explanations about the decision to cover the story. The initial response on Facebook, which caught Carros’s attention, was apparently organic; at least, it started before The Blaze’s post on the episode. And reporting on incidents like the “flag flap” can potentially benefit readers and viewers by providing clarity, context, and some analysis.

Unfortunately, by that standard, SourceMedia’s coverage of the “flag flap” flopped. While the reporting was fairly through, both the article and the news segment come across as instances where a commitment to a “just the facts” approach prevents a news organization from explaining clearly the political subtext—in this case, the fact that some critics of Obama might use the incident to bolster the idea that the president is vaguely “un-American” (and relatedly, that this type of attack has made institutions hyper-sensitive about accusations of insufficient patriotism). A willingness to state some conclusions, or at least speak plainly about political circumstances, might have made the coverage sharper.

Finally, here’s hoping that the next time one of the presidential candidates swings through the state, The Gazette and KCRG find a richer subject to explore in a follow-up—one that can cut through readers’ and viewers’ weariness with politics by drawing connections between the policy debates in Washington and their lives in the Hawkeye State.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.