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.
It was all so bizarre, but what could be stranger than Romney closing in on the nomination after just two states? This was a test Romney was determined to win by trying to change his image. Instead of PowerPoint presentations, he was reciting patriotic songs. He went from coat-and-tie business guy to a business guy wearing old-guy jeans and an open shirt. I didn’t think he could pass this test even if he had accessorized with a tri-corner hat.
It was the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, after all, that dominated the brinkmanship debates in Congress, where shutting down the government was always the threat of the day. It’s the Tea Partyers who most objected to Romney, who fails on the purity test. What happened to those guys? I haven’t seen them since they jumped off the Cain train.
Littwin wove into more than one column references to the role of money in the race—on January 10, “A Gingrich super PAC is preparing to attack Romney in South Carolina using a film about Romney and Bain expect to see a lot of it,”—and, on January 8:
In his first anti-Romney ad here, Gingrich called Romney “timid” and a “Massachusetts moderate,” which was pretty tame stuff. Later, he upped the ante to “liberal,” and Santorum threw in “boring” and “bland.” Or course that was before the PAC money started rolling in. And it was before Paul’s campaign announced he had raised $13 million in the last quarter.
And he made an effort to call out campaigns and candidates on their distortions, as when he pointed out that Romney’s rivals took out of context Romney’s “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me” statement, while adding that earlier, Romney’s campaign had used the same tactic on an opponent.
The second is a quote his pals have taken entirely out of context—Romney was actually talking about the ability to get rid of your health insurance company—but of course it was Romney’s campaign that had earlier defended the use of out-of-context quotes.
(Like other journalists, however, Littwin, in the course of explaining this lack of context, also truncated Romney’s quote to the arguably more objectionable-sounding “I like being able to fire people.”)
At times, however, Littwin’s expertise made for insidery, hard-to-follow stretches of column, like this from January 8:
If enough focus was on Romney, the theory went, his numbers could slip. And if Santorum could keep riding the post-Iowa surge, he could get close. And if he got close, then anything could happen.
This was also based on the idea that Gingrich would go all in with Santorum because he cared more about getting back at Romney after Iowa than he did on making a Gingrichian/historic/not-lobbyist second comeback.
Littwin didn’t cover the GOP primary in South Carolina, nor will the Post dispatch him to Florida. “I had money to send him on one trip, and we thought the primary between Iowa and South Carolina would give us most bang for our buck,” Hubbard said.
For the 2008 presidential contest, by contrast, the Post sent at least four reporters, separately, to Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Nevada. Of course, 2008 was a very different race. With no incumbent in the White House, there were real primary battles in both parties, and therefore, arguably, a need for more bodies on the trail—not to mention that the Post and most papers actually had more bodies to send four years ago. Additionally, Denver hosted the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The Post beefed up coverage of Democratic politics then, and felt it owed Republicans equal attention, said Kevin Dale, who was assistant managing editor in charge of presidential campaigns and conventions at the time.
Eager to hear also from the news side at the Post about their approach to covering the New Hampshire primary, I emailed Post
news editor editor Greg Moore. His reply:
We didn’t feel the need to send anyone to New Hampshire from news side. We are focused on covering our [February 7] caucus. The editorial page operates independently from the newsroom and Littwin’s work is clearly opinion and appeared in the op-ed section. I have not gotten any complaints.
Moore’s belief that wire services are sufficient to give Colorado readers what they need to know about out-of-state primaries calls to mind this recent piece by Boston Phoenix political writer David Bernstein, about the profound changes over the years—and especially this year—in how the presidential race is covered. Writes Bernstein (and the entire piece is well worth a read):
In the past, most of the journalists on the campaign bus wrote for local newspapers—small, medium, and large publications from all over the country—that sent their own reporters to cover the candidates.
That practice has sharply diminished, just since the 2008 primaries, in large part due to the economic realities of the industry. Just as newspapers have been forced to close overseas and Washington bureaus, they have trimmed back on their on-the-ground campaign coverage— relying on wire-service reporting, and columnists commenting on what they see and read from afar.
At the same time, there is a huge increase in journalists on the campaign trail covering the election for national, political-niche media. That includes Politico, National Journal, Huffington Post, Yahoo! Politics, Fox News, MSNBC, Real Clear Politics, TPM, Slate, Salon, American Spectator, and Daily Caller.
Instead of the general readership of daily newspapers, these outlets target an audience of political junkies.
But if political junkies are being served (and, at times, this is whom Littwin, too, seemed to be writing for from New Hampshire) are the vast majority of Americans—with only so much time and interest in Washington’s workings—being slighted? This is a question I have previously explored, as have my fellow Swing States Project correspondents, and it is one we will no doubt continue to consider as the campaign rolls along.
And, what of the old newspaper ethic of fair and balanced coverage? One could argue the Post’s decision to send an avowed liberal as its only representative to a major GOP primary flies in its face.
For decades, newspapers have gone to pains to avoid any appearance of partisanship in their political coverage, trumpeting their ethics policies and strict rules to ensure that each candidate receives equal coverage and treatment. But it’s a difficult, thankless, and some say, impossible task. (Ask Ron Paul supporters if they think the media has given their candidate his due.) One could also argue bias that is unavoidable — that every article will reflect the writer’s values and politics. News is still a subjective business, in other words, and while those old principles of fair and balanced coverage are good guidelines, they have never been immutable.
Ideally, the Denver Post would send—and Colorado readers would have the benefit of—multiple journalists on the campaign trail this year (news reporters, a columnist or two). The reality is, as Bernstein noted in the Phoenix, many papers of all sizes will send no one. That Coloradoans had a set of local, experienced (and, yes, left-leaning) eyes on the ground in New Hampshire turned out to be far better than better than nothing.
Correction: This story originally gave an incorrect title for Greg Moore. He is the editor of the Denver Post, not the news editor. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.