united states project

When Newt Isn’t Newsworthy

The problems with news pegs in campaign coverage
December 13, 2011

NEW HAMPSHIRE — Yesterday, former House speaker Newt Gingrich returned to New Hampshire for a foreign policy debate with former Utah governor Jon Huntsman. The trip marked Gingrich’s first visit to the state since receiving the endorsement of the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, on November 27.

In the time since the Union Leader endorsement, Gingrich has established himself as the clear leader in national and early state polls, including surveys of likely voters in New Hampshire’s January 10 primary, and is now given an approximately 36% chance of winning the GOP nomination and 17% chance of being elected president in the Intrade futures market.

Given that Gingrich has seemingly come out of nowhere to mount the first serious challenge to Mitt Romney’s frontrunner status, it seemed appropriate to expect that he would receive newfound media scrutiny. But at least in New Hampshire, the coverage has been relatively thin in the state’s two major newspapers, the Union Leader and the Concord Monitor.

With Gingrich out of state, both newspapers had an opportunity to step outside the routine of daily campaign coverage and take a deeper look at the former Speaker’s history in politics, his current campaign, and the policies he has promised to pursue as president. Instead, however, the most sustained coverage of Gingrich’s record was driven by statements made by former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu, a Romney surrogate. While Sununu’s comments served as a convenient news peg, the controversy was less than illuminating.

The exchange began when Sununu, former chief of staff to George H.W. Bush, was quoted criticizing Gingrich’s temperament and leadership style in a front-page Union Leader story on Thursday. In it, Sununu alleged that Gingrich had backed out of an agreement to support Bush’s 1990 budget deal with Democrats, setting off a round of “he said,” “she said” charges and counter-charges between the campaigns and their surrogates that resulted in front-page stories in the Union Leader and Monitor on Friday and an A3 followup in the Union Leader on Sunday.

These reports raise two journalistic concerns. First, the New York Times reported Monday that Union Leader reporter John DiStaso attributed comments from Gingrich himself to “[a] senior aide in the Gingrich campaign” in his A1 story Friday. According to the Times, Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said his boss “did not want to be identified to avoid the impression he was getting into a fight with the Romney camp.” If correct (Union Leader publisher Joe McQuaid refused comment to Politico), this story raises serious concerns about sourcing practices at the Union Leader. While granting anonymity to sources is justifiable under certain circumstances, providing a candidate the opportunity to rebut criticism from his opponents while posing as one of his own aides does not meet any reasonable journalistic standard for the practice.

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More generally, while it’s easy to see why newspapers would cover attacks by a former governor on the state’s leading presidential candidate, the controversy offered relatively little insight to voters. Few New Hampshire Republicans will find fault with Gingrich for backing out of a deal to support Bush’s budget agreement (which most conservatives opposed due to the tax increases included in it). More generally, it’s hard to see why this decades-old story is of great substantive interest other than Sununu’s position as the state’s former governor and the fact that it generated the first sustained give-and-take between the Romney and Gingrich campaigns.

The underlying structural problem is that policy and biography stories are typically written early in campaigns when few voters are paying attention. By the time people start paying attention to the race, those sorts of stories are “old news” and not revisited unless there’s a news peg. As a result, horse race coverage tends to dominate during the late stages of campaigns. That’s why negative ads and surrogate attacks can be democratically valuable— at their best, they can force media coverage to focus on a candidate’s weak point and provide a hook for reporters to explain the facts of the issue.

Unfortunately, reporters’ dependence on news pegs means that they end up substituting opposing campaigns’ judgments about what issues are important for their own, particularly when it comes to a well-known political figure like Gingrich. In this particular case, the surrogate attack of choice was not especially important, which serves to underscores the problem. Reporters: John H. Sununu should not be your assignment editor! Gingrich may be old news among insiders, but few Americans know very much about him. Given that the former House speaker could very well be president in January 2013, it’s time for the press to take a closer look.

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.