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.
Nobles was more aggressive in his questioning of Ryan on Friday (when “NBC12 was granted access to GOP Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan,” as the station’s teaser had it). For example, Nobles asked Ryan about Romney’s statement that he’s never paid less than 13 percent in taxes in any year, and whether Ryan understood that this “perhaps is a low number to most people.” Ryan danced around the point, and said most people aren’t concerned about someone’s tax returns, but Nobles repeated the question. Ryan then noted that Romney paid “what he had to.”
For broadcast, Nobles’s Ryan interview was pared to a bit more than two minutes, and included some “she-said” from Democrat and Richmond delegate Jennifer McLellan on Romney’s Medicare reform plan (she “argues it will still cost seniors more”), Romney’s not-less-than 13 percent tax rate (“attacked as being too low”) and Romney/Ryan’s economic plans generally (“a top-down approach.”) Again, the audience received no help from Nobles navigating the back-and-forth.
Asked about these criticisms, Nobles in an email on Tuesday wrote that one needs to consider the full interview that’s posted online (which has a bit more than 1,000 views) in context with what the station actually aired (which was potentially seen by hundreds of thousands of viewers).
“The vast majority of people who were exposed to our reporting saw a balanced story with a Democratic response that challenged the claims made by the candidate and provided an objective perspective on the issues of the race,” he wrote.
For Nobles, posting the full interview in his blog is an enhancement, added value to the report.
“I obviously put myself in a position to be judged for better or worse by posting the interview in its entirety on the Internet,” he wrote. “It is something I have always done with major newsmakers and it is not something I see major national news outlets doing on a regular basis.”
He acknowledged the criticisms from the left, and also noted that he’s caught flack from the right “from Republicans in email and in phone calls who watched my television coverage of both the Romney interview and the Ryan event/interview who felt it was too critical of the GOP ticket.”
I am confident that we handled the opportunities appropriately and that our viewers were given a well informed perspective on the race for president…That doesn’t mean there isn’t always room for improvement, but to suggest that local television reporters aren’t equipped to handle the responsibility is a misguided view of the way local newsrooms use the content and the way it is consumed.
This won’t be the last time that local reporters here and in other swing states will be “granted exclusive access” to Romney, Ryan, Obama or Biden. The challenge for reporters is to make such interviews—even in the face of format and time constraints, and evasive interviewees—more than an “exclusive” (and largely uninterrupted) recitation of talking points. The candidates, as NBC News 4 Washington’s Julie Carey put it in the intro to her one-on-one with Ryan last Friday, are “determined to stay on message, not make news.”