VIRGINIA — The word “exclusive” is routinely devalued in broadcast political reporting and last week was no exception. Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan granted “exclusive” face time Thursday and Friday to assorted local television reporters in key states including Ohio (Cincinnati, Youngstown) and here in Virginia (and the District of Columbia).
Such “exclusives” have been an election cycle staple for years. In theory, they can offer local viewers a more-than-cursory look at candidates. Campaigns, however, see them as an opportunity to get their message out with (fingers crossed!) little pushback or challenge (TV’s time constraints don’t help).
What did the Virginia portion of last week’s GOP local TV blitz yield for Romney/Ryan—and for viewers here?
In Richmond, Ryan Nobles of WWBT (NBC12) got a seven-plus minute interview with Gov. Romney (via satellite from Alabama) on Thursday, and a seven-plus minute in-person interview with Rep. Ryan on Friday. (Nobles told me by email that his newsroom has standing requests for interviews with the Romney and Obama campaigns, and that the Romney campaign broached the idea for last week’s one-on-ones.)
What did NBC12’s audience get?
Bits from Nobles’s Romney interview were scattered over multiple newscasts on Thursday afternoon and evening (proudly teased: “We were the only station in Virginia to talk one on one with Governor Romney”) and the full video was later posted on Nobles’s NBC12.com blog, Decision Virginia.
Looking at the interview in its entirely, Nobles’s questions for Romney were solid, and dealt with a range of issues pertinent to Virginians including taxes, Medicare, and candidates’ proposed cuts to the federal workforce. But Nobles missed opportunities to do more for his audience—to push back, to pose follow-up questions, to help viewers and readers navigate the assertions before them. Part of the problem was in Nobles’s phrasing of the questions. For example, setting up a question on Romney’s tax plan by noting that it is something the Obama campaign “has attacked on a pretty regular basis,” as Nobles did, moves the focus from the substance and specifics of Romney’s and Obama’s tax plans to the campaign claims and counter-claims about the plans. Likewise, introducing a question about Romney’s Medicare plan by observing that Medicare is a topic that has “become very heated on the campaign trail,” per Nobles, invites a response about the heat rather than the substance. (Not, of course, that candidates need an invitation to stray from substance).
Indeed, Romney ended his response to Nobles’s Medicare queries by adding to that heat, asserting that “the right course is not to cut Medicare by $716 billion,” as Romney has spent the past week-plus claiming that “Obamacare” will do. Nobles did not challenge Romney’s $716 billion talking point—one that PolitiFact rated “mostly false” and The Washington Post put in perspective here (perspective that NBC12’s audience did not get). It is a talking point that reporters last week arguably could have anticipated and prepared for. Instead, Nobles moved immediately on to a question about reducing the federal workforce (“Now, among your cost-saving proposals that I read about on your web site last night .”).
Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein offered this critique of Nobles-on-Romney on his blog last Friday:
There’s basically no follow-up at all, and any professional politician can easily use any question, no matter how artfully framed, to pivot to whatever talking point he or she wants to use. The way to break that up is through the use of follow-up questions, which at the very least can make it clear that the pol is ducking something.
So instead, it’s basically a seven-minute Romney infomercial given extra legitimacy because it’s on the news. Of course, it’s not just Romney; all presidential candidates, Barack Obama most certainly included, do this.
The left-leaning Virginia blog, Blue Virginia, offered similar criticisms (and then some). Yes, Nobles’s interview had its infomercial moments (“You want jobs in Virginia? Don’t vote for a president who’s going to cut the military by one trillion dollars” . “We’re gonna fix our schools and our training programs to make them the best in the world” “I’m going to champion small business. I’ve got a plan to help small businesses”).
For its 6pm broadcast on Thursday, NBC12 ran several minutes from Nobles’s Romney interview interspersed with counter-claims from the Obama campaign’s Ben LaBolt (and no help from Nobles navigating the back-and-forth). “Just a small sample of the big differences between the campaigns in the battle over Virginia, one of the election’s biggest prizes,” concluded Nobles at segment’s end.