united states project

Follow the story, not the agenda

How to (and how not to) cover campaign "events," like Biden's recent Detroit speech
July 31, 2012

MICHIGAN — You show up, jot down a few quotes, take in a bit of scenic color, and translate it into a few paragraphs of simple prose. “Event” coverage—stump speech, rally, town hall—would seem a self-evident form of political journalism (and, indeed, it often reads as if it were done on autopilot, or fill-in-the-blank-style). But a look at the reporting on Vice President Joe Biden’s appearance in Detroit on Sunday illustrates ways that campaign reporters can transcend the form and give readers more than rally rhetoric and scene-setting, as well as what is lost when reporters merely skim the surface.

Biden—along with his wife, Jill—spoke on the final day of the national convention of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest union of educators in the country. (AFT has 1.5 million members, about 3,000 of which were at Biden’s speech.) In what The Detroit News described as “equal parts campaign rally, rock concert and love fest,” Biden championed the Obama Administration’s education policies and came down hard on the Republican agenda.

The Associated Press reported that, “Biden painted Romney as planning to gut education funding to finance tax breaks for the wealthy.” The News quoted Biden as saying, “Unlike our Republican friends, we don’t see you [educators] as the problem. We see you as the solution.” Biden apparently justified these claims by citing specific education policies. From the Toledo Blade (Toledo being an hour’s drive southwest from Detroit):

The vice president listed several education spending bills that President Obama supported to put teachers to work that he said Republicans voted down or attempted to block. He also accused Mr. Romney and other Republicans of wanting cuts to education and other services in order to afford tax cuts for the richest Americans.

What these bills or cuts are, Blade readers aren’t told. The paper at least made a gesture to them, though; most other news reports didn’t mention these specifics at all. But by not providing details here (naming the bills, at the least), the paper denies readers the opportunity to judge Biden’s point on its merits, rather than on its rhetorical flourish. (The left-leaning Eclecta Blog had the only take I’ve seen that includes a video of the speeches by both Bidens, making some such specifics available to readers).

While the AFT appears to have happily cheered Biden, and it solidified its endorsement of President Obama shortly after the speech, the Detroit Free Press article (which also appeared in USA Today) smartly pointed out that the Obama administration actively supports several policies that AFT opposes, like merit pay, testing evaluations, and charter schools—none of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, Biden mentioned in his speech.

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Mlive, a statewide news site went a bit further in looking at what was unsaid. Wrote reporter Dave Murray:

But unmentioned was the Obama administration’s signature education reform plan—Race to the Top—[which some teachers view skeptically] that offered states the chance to compete for grants once they have adopted a series of reforms, including linking student performance to teacher evaluations.

Obama also has supported merit pay and charter schools, both issues generally opposed by teachers unions.

Biden also made no reference to the issues in the host city. US Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called the Detroit Public Schools “Ground Zero in American education,” and AFT leaders on Friday marched in protest to the offices of the state-appointed emergency manager, who imposed a contract on teachers without negotiating.

In addition to concisely articulating how and where the AFT and the Obama administration disagree, Murray did a nice job of localizing for readers the national conversation on education politics. He might have added a few more relevant details: after the AFT’s Friday march, according to the Detroit News, the union’s president met with the Detroit Public School’s emergency manager and agreed to present a proposal this week for moving forward with negotiations.

In its coverage of Biden’s speech, Michigan Radio noted, as did most reports in one way or another, that “AFT union leaders strongly back President Obama.” Here, Michigan Radio (as well as other outlets) could have offered readers a real sense of what, beyond T-shirts and applause, the union’s “back[ing]” looks like. Where does AFT sit in the landscape of political players? The report could have explored this with, say, a reference or link to OpenSecrets’s list of the “Top All-Time [Political] Donors,” on which AFT ranks 10th of 140 (87% of donations to Democrats), a few rungs lower than the 7th-ranked Goldman Sachs, or to more specific OpenSecrets’s data on AFT’s political expenditures (nearly $2 million supporting Obama in 2008). This is readily-available information and key context that reporters, ideally, would offer their readers and viewers every time a candidate courts a particular audience.

Reporters should not limit the bounds of their campaign stump stories to What Is Said on a topic—that is, a candidate’s message of the day—or even to what the candidate indicates is The Key Topic. It is a disservice to readers to do so. Knowing that campaign events will multiply—as will the press pack covering them—after the nominating conventions later this summer, I offer a rule of thumb for coverage: follow the story—not the agenda.

Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she was a 2017 Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. She is online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.