united states project

For Whom Are Iowa’s Reporters Writing…

…If likely caucus-goers don’t trust (or even read) their campaign coverage?
December 15, 2011

IOWA — Here in the Hawkeye State, as in many other places, conservative skepticism about—if not outright distrust of—the “mainstream media” is well established.

Bob Vander Plaats, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate who’s now head of the conservative advocacy group The Family Leader, said in a recent interview that many of his fellow conservatives believe traditional news sources have a liberal agenda.

Mainstream news sources “are almost irrelevant” to the listeners of Steve Deace’s conservative talk radio show, said Deace. (Until earlier this year, the show was broadcast on Des Moines’s AM talk radio station, WHO; it is now nationally syndicated and heard on the Ames-based KTIA-FM.) During a recent focus group with eleven “undecided Evangelical voters in the 2012 Iowa caucuses,” Deace found that the group gets “almost none of its information from the mainstream media, so what it says about the candidates is basically irrelevant.”

And a recent New York Times/CBS poll of likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers, about one-third of whom identified as evangelical or born-again Christians, found that 37 percent of respondents get most of their TV coverage of politics from Fox News, compared to 27 percent for all the major news networks combined. Another 32 percent frequently listen to political call-in shows. (The poll did not ask respondents whether they read in-state or national newspapers.)

But if the Iowa GOP caucuses are important, in part, because they are a proving ground for appeal to social conservatives, and social conservatives don’t get their news from the state mainstream media—for whom, then, are Iowa’s mainstream journalists reporting?

I recently posed this question, among others, to a handful of Iowa’s political reporters. And I learned that while the state’s journalists cover the caucuses with a variety of audiences in mind, they don’t all agree that conservative voters tune out mainstream coverage.

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Associated Press senior political writer Mike Glover said there’s no question conservatives are suspicious of the mainstream media and prefer to get their information from other sources, like conservative talk radio.

“They don’t want to talk to us, they don’t trust what we write, and they think we’re basically out to get them,” said Glover, who’s covered politics in Iowa for more than 30 years. But to Glover’s mind, the mainstream media is inherently conservative, in the sense that it needs to attract a mass audience to survive and therefore can’t afford to offend anyone.

But others offered different perspectives. Des Moines Register political columnist Kathie Obradovich said she would consider Fox News part of the mainstream media. And she argued that much of the information reported by conservative radio stations and websites is originally generated by traditional news sources

“A lot of what you see discussed on social media, as well, is originally coming from mainstream media,” Obradovich said. “These primary-goers, I think they’re consumers of mainstream media. I just think they aren’t necessarily consumers that believe every word they read.”

Register political reporter Jason Clayworth, too, discounts the notion that conservative Iowans tune out mainstream coverage.

“They can say that they hate the liberal media,” Clayworth said. “They can repeat that over and over, but the fact of the matter is they do listen to us. It’s kind of common banter to beat up on ‘the liberal media,’ but the fact of the matter is they still eat this ice cream.”

Radio Iowa news director O. Kay Henderson (for whom I’ve worked) also thinks voters of all stripes—including conservatives —pay attention to mainstream news sources.

Radio Iowa serves over 60 radio stations, many of which have a talk format, which Henderson thinks sparks community conversation about the caucuses. She views her role as sifting through campaign speeches and presenting busy listeners with information in a condensed format.

“I like to think part of my role is to ask questions for the Iowans who don’t have the luxury of taking time away from their job or their family to drive to some venue, wait for the candidate to show up late and then sit through an hour-long speech,” said Henderson, who also keeps a blog with more in-depth information about the presidential nominating contest.

Obradovich said identifying the Register’s audience and its needs are topics that have garnered a lot of discussion in the newsroom. She believes the state’s largest newspaper actually has several audiences.

“Caucus-goers themselves and people that are trying to make up their mind, they’re a very important audience—but they’re a small audience, compared to readers in general,” Obradovich said. “There are also people who will vote in the general election, folks who may not be interested in politics at all are but interested in the caucuses and how Iowa is portrayed, the spectacle. Then the national audience of media or political junkies from around the country.”

Obradovich said caucus-goers want information to make up their minds, like issue grids and details on where they can see candidates; people who are less likely to participate in the caucuses want to know if Wolf Blitzer is in the state, what Jon Stewart is saying about Iowa, or what President Obama is up to; and national political junkies want to know how candidates are playing in Iowa and where they stand in the latest in-state poll, among other things.

And then there are the readers, Obradovich noted, who think the paper devotes too much space to the caucuses altogether.

Andrew Duffelmeyer has covered government and politics in Iowa for the Associated Press, the Iowa Independent, and IowaPolitics.com. He grew up in Ames, attended Drake University in Des Moines, and continues to live and work in Iowa’s capital city.