COLORADO — The Denver Post’s decision to send just one writer, Mike Littwin, to cover the New Hampshire GOP presidential primary might have raised many eyebrows in the past. Littwin is a liberal, and a fairly flaming one at that. His often hard-hitting op-ed page columns, beloved by the left, routinely raise the bile of right-leaning readers. (Disclosure: I occasionally edited Littwin’s columns at the Rocky Mountain News from 2002-2009, and in 2010-2011, I wrote op-ed pieces for the Denver Post, generally left-leaning with libertarian streaks).
Littwin’s four dispatches from New Hampshire had their usual flair—“It was hardly a memorable speech at Romney’s victory party, although, interestingly, he did use a teleprompter, which I thought Republicans couldn’t use anymore. Can you trust a guy who uses one of those things?”—and ran in their regular spot in the opinion section, not on the news pages, so no one could accuse the Post of false packaging.
But some readers still called foul. Eyebrows—at least a few— raised. As one Post reader commented online:
It would be instructive for [the Denver Post] to explain to readers why a left-wing, so-called journalist is covering the Republican primaries. Does [the Post] plan on having [conservative Denver Post columnist] Mike Rosen cover his lordship, Barack Obama, in the run-up to the general election?
I, too, had questions. Must a daily metropolitan newspaper be impartial in covering a presidential primary—or at least try to appear so—or have the rules changed? And, given that the Post sent only one person to cover New Hampshire, why did the paper choose a partisan opinion writer rather than a news reporter? Finally, (what) did Littwin deliver for Colorado readers?
Agreeing it would be instructive, as the online commenter above noted, to hear the Post’s thinking behind the decision to send Littwin and Littwin alone to New Hampshire—and then to wrestle a bit, here, with that decision—I reached out to the paper.
Curtis Hubbard, the Post’s editorial page editor, said he sent Littwin because of the columnist’s talent and expertise, noting that “no one has more experience in the building covering presidential primaries than Mike does, so Mike is uniquely qualified among our staff.” (Littwin also hit the campaign trail, including New Hampshire, in the past two election cycles as columnist for the Rocky Mountain News.) Hubbard hinted that, if he had the budget, he would have considered also sending a right-leaning columnist. Like many U.S. newspapers, the Post battles declining subscriptions and ad revenues. In November, 19 Post newsroom employees—8 percent of the staff—accepted buyouts, which followed newsroom layoffs and buyouts in 2009 and 2007.
The Post’s editorial and news operations are, of course, separate, Hubbard noted, so he couldn’t speak to why the news side did not send a reporter to New Hampshire. For his own part, said Hubbard in a phone interview:
I certainly think there are benefits to having someone from Colorado looking at the race and relating it to Colorado in terms that are familiar or in a voice that’s familiar. The thing you struggle with in the opinion arena is that that person goes in with a perspective. Mike has a well-earned reputation as a liberal, and there were some readers who were critical of sending somebody with that viewpoint to cover a GOP primary.
Hubbard said he received about three complaints of biased coverage and here’s how he said he would respond to those critics:
Any information you get, you have to understand the lens with which it’s being viewed and how it’s being framed for you, and once you do that, I think you can find value whether it’s Mike Littwin or Fox News or George Will.
So, did Littwin deliver—on the Post’s terms (expertise)? And, did Littwin deliver more broadly for Coloradoans (by, for example, scrutinizing messages coming out of the campaigns in New Hampshire)?
For one, readers engaged; Littwin’s New Hampshire columns each elicited from 24 to 78 readers’ comments, although it’s not unusual for comments on his columns to top 100. Littwin brought his gimlet eye, political chops, and, yes, opinions, to the task, such as in his analysis of Romney’s win, under the headline, “An enthusiasm-free victory in New Hampshire:”
All you had to do was look—at Herman Cain’s rise and fall, at The Donald’s strange (even for him) campaign cameo, at the Gingrichian restoration, at the Rick Perry oopsing collapse. The many debates became must-watch events because reality politics had turned into the new reality TV.