Do You Know Your Stuff?

By RJI on May 13, 2008 0 Comments

by Jon Margolis

Jon Margolis, former chief political reporter for the Chicago Tribune and the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964," lives in northeastern Vermont, where he writes and teaches.

Last week, USA Today ran a story about how hard it would be for Sen. Barack Obama to do well in the West Virginia primary. The “gun-owning, church-going, financially struggling voters” so numerous in the state, the story noted, aren’t Obama’s type.

In fact, despite West Virginia's 2-1 Democratic registration, the story showed why the state might not be any Democratic presidential candidate's type these days. "President Bush carried the state both times, handily in 2004, and the story quotes Danny Jones, the Republican mayor of Charleston, to explain why:

“It was because of three things: guns, God and abortion.”

No doubt all three mattered. But something seems to be missing, something that comes quickly to mind when one considers West Virginia. Let’s see. What’s in West Virginia? There are mountains, of course. And forests. And rivers. And ... oh, yeah. Coal.

That’s what was missing.
Coal. The state produces tons of it. Thousands make their living mining it, thousands more providing the equipment and services needed to mine it.

One reason that Al Gore and then John Kerry got beat in West Virginia was that they were supported by the environmentalists, and in the eyes of West Virginians, environmentalists have gotten downright hostile over coal. In this case, the eyes of West Virginians see clearly. With the emergence of global warming as the dominant environmental issue, the Greenies, along with quite a few independent experts, have given up on “clean coal,” an idea whose time keeps not coming. Coal puts more greenhouse gases into the air per BTU than any other fuel, and some folks just want to get rid of the stuff.

West Virginians know this and resent it. Coal mining is not just part of their economic base; it’s part of their culture. Some of them take anti-coal sentiments personally. Many a West Virginian looks at a candidate and, in effect, says to him/her, “we don’t like your friends, so we don’t like you either.”

Not a smidgen of this was in this was in the USA Today story, and it’s not hard to figure out why. The reporter probably found no West Virginian who said anything about coal being a factor in the past two presidential elections (and no doubt this next one). Mayor Jones of Charleston, the biggest city and the state capital, was easy to find. His office alone renders him a credible political source. From one perspective, then, his assessment could suffice.

That is the perspective of the journalist as craftsman – the trained professional who understands where to go and with whom to speak, who gets the quotes right, who can figure out what the lead is, and who can write it with some pizzazz.

All necessary. But there is – or there used to be and ought to be – another perspective, one that assumes that in addition to having skills, reporters should … well, they should know stuff, stuff about the real world. No one would be so bold as to suggest that a reporter should be an educated person. How about just an informed person?

Without being scholars or experts, reporters should know something about science, history, economics, the intricacies of American society, perhaps even – dare one say it? – literature and the arts. A reporter should know, for instance, what the prime rate is, who Dwight Eisenhower was (and when, and come to think of it, who Adlai Stevenson was, too), what Ernest Hemingway wrote and why that matters. He or she should be familiar with the U.S. Constitution and understand at least roughly how both the Social Security system and the Endangered Species Act work.

Not to mention knowing why coal is so important to West Virginia politics.

Now, as it happens, the writer of that USA Today story, Kathy Kiely, is a very good reporter who knows lots of stuff, a strength usually evident in her work. She might have been rushed that day. Still, the point is worth examining because there have been more than a few recent examples of political stories that were misleading precisely because the journalists covering and editing the stories didn’t know some basics. Not basics about journalism, but basics about the world.

Consider, for instance, one of the last items in that list above – knowing how the Social Security system works. Had he known even the basics, columnist George Will might have saved himself some embarrassment. In a recent “Newsweek” column, Will chastised Obama because he favored “eliminating the cap on earnings subject to the 12.4 percent Social Security tax, which now covers only the first $102,000 (of income).”

No fair, Will implied. “A Chicago police officer married to a Chicago public-school teacher, each with 20 years on the job, have a household income of $147,501, so you would take another $5,642 from them. Are they undertaxed? Are they rich?”

Except that Obama wouldn’t take another penny from them. Social Security taxes are levied on individuals, not couples. Journalists should know that.

Two qualifications here. First, Will is a columnist but not really a reporter. On the other hand, he is a Ph.D. and former academic, hence an intellectual who should know policy details. Second, were he a real reporter, Will might know that Obama has proposed raising, but not “eliminating,” the cap. A reporter would have known all sorts of esoteric tricks of the trade for finding this out, like checking the campaign’s Web site.

Then there are the many stories that have been printed and aired over the past several weeks looking ahead to the Democratic convention and wondering whether it could resemble the tumultuous 1968 version, with rioting in the streets of Chicago and profanities shouted from the convention floor. On television, these stories are invariably illustrated by at least a few seconds of film from 1968 showing the Chicago police whopping some protesters upside of the head.

But in 1968 the Democratic Party was effectively at war with itself, over matters as somber as the real war then raging in Vietnam and as frivolous as whether young men should let their hair grow long. That convention took place just months after two major political assassinations and deadly riots in several cities. That was, arguably, the worst year in American history aside from the four in which the country was literally at war with itself.

Except for the relative few actually fighting it, today’s war is trivial by comparison – at least for America; the Iraqis have a different outlook. Its opponents express themselves in books, films, magazine articles and conventional political campaigns, not by taking to the streets. The Democratic Party is united as part of that opposition. As always, there are cultural conflicts, but to the extent that they are part of the political process, the arguments are between the parties more than within either of them. There is no reason whatever to predict rioting on the streets of Denver this August, or even to hint at it.

But there seems to be a journalistic predilection to raise the prospect of calamity regardless of how unlikely that prospect is. Granted, the continuing contest for the Democratic nomination raises all kinds of possibilities, so when a reporter says that such-and-such an event “could” transpire, no one can conclusively prove him wrong. Anything “could” happen, especially if Sen. Hillary Clinton takes her challenge all the way to the convention.

Forget for a moment how extremely unlikely this is. Like any good politician, Clinton can count. Still, it is possible. But that ought not to give journalists license to weave speculative scenarios of further improbabilities on top of that one.

Last week, CNN ran a story on the pitfalls facing the Democrats at a contested convention. Reported by the usually sensible Frank Sesno, the piece raised the specter not of 1968 but 1972, when a still fractured and even more dispirited Democratic Party fought with itself over everything imaginable and several matters beyond imagination. The squabbling lasted so long that nominee George McGovern delivered his acceptance speech long after prime time.

That could happen again, Sesno warned, if there are prolonged debates over the rules or the platform.

The rules, maybe, if Clinton and Obama are still fighting over those Florida and Michigan delegations. But the platform? What could the delegates possibly be arguing about for so long? Clinton and Obama have had to struggle to find any policy disagreements at all. So far they have differed over only the gas tax holiday, whether adults should be required to buy health insurance, and under just what conditions a president should meet with distasteful world leaders. These are not matters over which men and women man or woman the barricades. The Democrats, being Democrats, will no doubt find something to argue about during their platform committee meetings, providing a headline for a day or two. None of it is likely to keep them going past dinner time.

OK, all this is clearer to those of us who were there in 1972, and not everyone has my advantage of being old and decrepit. But there are books, not to mention us old and decrepit folks to consult. The point is that good journalism requires more than just journalistic skills. There is reality – its past, its present, its intricacies. Reporters ought to bone up on it.