What did the Observer’s coverage look like? On March 30, with Pittenger’s ad in fresh rotation, the paper devoted an article to what the lede called the “first attack of the 9th District congressional primary.” The second paragraph repeats the ad’s claims—claims dubbed “misleading,” two paragraphs later, not by the reporter but, less convincingly, by Pendergraph’s campaign manager. The piece goes on to quote a professor about the strategy behind Pittenger’s ad—a common approach that sidelines questions about the accuracy of candidates’ claims, as Swing States correspondent Brendan Nyhan has noted.
And what about those Pittenger claims called “misleading” by the target’s campaign manager? Three paragraphs at the end of the Observer report offered background related to the ad’s claims. This material likely left readers with a sense that the ad takes some liberties. But, how so, exactly? Readers were left to sort most of it out themselves.
That approach held true in an April 4 Observer news report about Pendergraph’s continued pushback against the ad. That same day, meanwhile, the Observer’s opinion page offered clear assessment of Pittenger’s ad, declaring that “anyone who has followed Pendergraph’s career knows [Pittenger’s claims are] misleading at best.”
On April 12, back on the news pages, the Observer reported that the ad sparked a confrontation between Pendergraph and Pittenger at a candidates’ forum. Though there’s a crowded field competing for the seat, the majority of the piece was devoted to the back-and-forth between Pendergraph and Pittenger—again, with no clear adjudication.
On that same day, the Observer’s editorial page associate editor, Peter St. Onge, provided a detailed online breakdown of Pittenger’s ad at the paper’s “O-pinion” blog. Among the “questionable elements” he identified: the ad’s claim that the Observer “exposed” Pendergraph’s “secret bonus,” when the Observer simply reported, among other things, on how the payment of unused vacation days came to light. St. Onge also locates and links to a copy of the ad, noting that it has disappeared from Pittenger’s campaign site and YouTube channel; and debunks the ad’s claims that Pendergraph’s payment was “hidden” or “secret,” or that there’s evidence, as the ad implies, of “back-scratching” between Pendergraph and the official who gave the green light to the payment. Some of the ad’s claims, he concludes, go “a step past sloppy toward misleading.”
St. Onge’s post closes with a moral judgment—that the ad is “really dirty politics”—which may have its proper home in the opinion section. But the bulk of his post is digging through history, unearthing relevant facts, and offering clear statements about the veracity of campaign claims. Those are all tasks that could be, and should be, done in news articles, especially because there’s no guarantee that the people reading those articles, either online or in print, will also see the opinion blog post.
It’s that last part—assessing the veracity of claims—that feels uncomfortable to many reporters, I’m sure, since they’re used to keeping themselves removed from the story. And in an environment where campaigns seek to take advantage of news outlets’ brand and credibility, journalists might reasonably worry that measured attempts to weigh in (“true, but ”) could be fodder for further truth-stretching TV ads or political mailers (TRUE!). (And speaking of those mailers )
But without those clear statements, supported by all the relevant facts, it can be impossible to move beyond endless iterations of he-said, she-said coverage. As Nyhan wrote in November, when misleading claims fly, rather than simply outline strategic considerations or document the sparring between campaigns, reporters should identify credible outside experts and also be prepared to “characterize the accuracy of ads in their own voice.”
It’s great to see opinion-page staff help clarify the political rhetoric. But fact-checking is more than just opinion, even in our post-modern world. Facts—and the conclusions that flow from them—belong on news pages, on news sites, and in news stories. The readers are counting on it.
To end on a high note: the simple, clear words from WFAE’s Miller on Pittenger’s ad provided a smart model for journalists. And The News & Observer’s fact-check, and the jobs claim box at the Observer, signal strong work ahead on behalf of North Carolina voters. We’re going to need it, considering the ad war has hardly begun.