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Nikki Haley and Rand Paul Races: Where Have All the Reporters Gone?

3 years ago
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On the cusp of her historic landslide victory in the South Carolina GOP gubernatorial primary, Nikki Haley swooped into Hartsville last Saturday afternoon. More than 100 Tea Party activists waited in the scorching heat for the Indian-American state legislator, who had fought off two public but totally unproven accusations of adultery and survived a Republican state senator castigating her as a "raghead."

It was the perfect political scene to cap the weekend's campaign coverage less than 72 hours before the state's most raucous, riveting and, at times, repugnant gubernatorial primary in decades. Hartsville (population: 7,465) may be a small town in the Pee Dee region, but it is just 70 miles northeast of the state capital (and media center) in Columbia. But still there was one thing missing from the picturesque scene -- any South Carolina newspaper, wire service, TV or radio reporters.

What we are witnessing in this election cycle is the slow death of traditional statewide campaign journalism. I noticed the same pattern (and the same nearly reporter-free campaign trail) in Kentucky last month as I covered libertarian Rand Paul's decisive defeat of the state Republican establishment in the GOP Senate primary. Aside from an occasional AP reporter, virtually the only print journalists whom I encountered at campaign events were my national press-pack colleagues from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico and the Atlantic Monthly.

Newspapers like the Louisville Courier-Journal and The State, South Carolina's largest paper, have dramatically de-emphasized in-depth candidate coverage because they are too short-handed to spare the reporters. A survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) found that newsroom staffs across the country have declined by 25 percent since 2001.

A Kentucky Democratic strategist (who did not want his name used for fear of antagonizing the state's remaining political journalists) put it this way: "The newspapers are gutted – and everybody who is left is doing three other jobs. As a result, it feels like there is little accountability for candidates about what they say. It's cover at 2:30 and file at 4:30 without thought or research."

As a veteran of eight presidential campaigns, I know there is a virtue to being there in person rather than virtually. Reading the polls and watching TV ads may equip you to loudly opine on cable news shows, but it is no match for interviewing the candidate, listening to the stump speech, gauging the mood of the crowds, and quizzing voters in diners and BBQ joints. Traveling with candidates (particularly in states like South Carolina and Kentucky where personal campaigning matters) gives you a sense of nuance about who they are as people and politicians.

Woody Allen got it right: "Showing up is 80 percent of life." By going to Hartsville, I was able to interview Nikki Haley's husband, who had only been briefly quoted in the press since the initial allegations of infidelity were made by Republican-operative-turned-blogger Will Folks. Talking with the soft-spoken Michael Haley, I came away with a sense of his pride in his wife's political ascent and failed to detect even a glimmer of suppressed rage as a wronged spouse. None of this, of course, is conclusive. But it provides more of a real-world view than armchair speculation about what Michael Haley must be feeling.

The gradual abandonment of on-the-ground campaign coverage means that polls are fast becoming the only way to glimpse voter sentiment. Since most polls in statewide races (particularly primaries) are automated short-answer surveys, it becomes easy to jump to blunderbuss conclusions like "all incumbents are imperiled" or "the Tea Party movement is all-powerful."

After Republican Scott Brown sent conventional wisdom reeling by winning Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in January, an analysis of the media coverage demonstrated why the press was so slow to realize an upset was in the making. The reason: Political reporters never left Boston, even though no place in Massachusetts is more than a three-hour drive away. The study by the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism found that only 6 percent of major newspaper and AP stories covering the last two weeks of the general election campaign were based on non-Boston coverage.

Shocking revelation ahead: Not all old-time campaign journalism combined the big-picture sweep of a Theodore White with the gonzo irreverence of a Hunter Thompson. Political reporting, particularly in sleepy journalistic backwater states, could be lazy and stenographic.

Bill Clinton waged eight statewide campaigns in Arkansas without ever being challenged on his cleverly worded answers to the marijuana question like this one in 1990: "In the primary, as in years before, I have made it very clear that while I have never violated the drug laws of the state, I don't think 'have you ever' questions should be asked of candidates without any provocation." Only when Clinton was running for president in 1992 was he finally asked during a debate about whether he smoked marijuana in England while a Rhodes scholar. Clinton's answer added the phrase "I didn't inhale" to the political lexicon.

But a strong case can be made that even pedestrian newspaper campaign coverage is preferable to the rumor-mongering of blogs and the unchecked claims of TV spots. In South Carolina, Will Folks' eccentric blog FITSNews (which boasts that it is "Unfair. Imbalanced.") is regarded as a major source of political news largely because of the lack of competition. Of course, unlike Folks, mainstream newspaper editors do not claim in the middle of a gubernatorial campaign that they had an affair with a candidate.

At a time when Americans are obsessed with politics, it is both sad and strange that the great narratives of on-the-road campaign journalism have become as imperiled as midlist novelists and itinerant poets. Only a memorable political year like 2010 can produce one-of-a-kind statewide candidates like Nikki Haley, who is overwhelmingly favored to win the June 22 runoff, and Rand Paul. Too bad that they are not big enough stories to lift the leading South Carolina and Kentucky newspapers out of their economically determined decline toward irrelevance.

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32 Comments

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ettu

It is a shame, what is happening to our newspapers, and, I might add, to those we once called journalists. I live in Chicago, and used to read the SunTimes, and oftentimes, the Tribune, from cover to cover, including sports. As time passed, these newspapers became the stage for "writers" to proclaim their own bias, rather than remain a means for the people to garner the "facts," especially facts concerning local issues, and the political machinations of those in DC. In Chicago, both papers are undeniably topheavy with Liberal bias. It is no longer informative to read the papers. I can get the lib bias from MSNBC and the conservative bias on FOX. What has happened with me, is, I listen to the Opinionators on both of these cable news programs, I read the articles written by contributors to PD and other sites on the internet, I check Wikipedia and politicians' websites, I scan the WSJ, and through it all, I try to come to logical conclusions. The newspapers, at least those I have daily access to, have failed to factually inform the people, as is their responsibility. A shame.

June 24 2010 at 3:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ghsiegel

Wally's bio states that he spends his time between his home on the upper east side of Manhattan and Washington, D.C. With his vast experience in living with average people of this country now I know why he is so overwhelmingly knowledgeable of the common man's thoughts and ideas.

June 13 2010 at 12:50 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
patricia cash

Engaging article. Louisville C/J covered Rand Paul at the Louisville Gun Show where he was touting 2nd amend rights but with his arms locked ,strongly across his chest and body , face and eyes were saying one thing and his mouth another ,Louisville C/J didn't comment in their article or question Paul about his real belief about Assualt or other heavy firearms rights. As for S/C and Nikki and affairs not very colorful compared to Gov Sandford,she is also fairly boring from the reads .

June 12 2010 at 9:17 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
taushaestenson

Since when was a failure to garner the nomination considered an "historic landslide victory" ?
Have Nikki release her phone records to prove she wasn't sleeping around on her poor husband and kids. That will bring the press out .

June 12 2010 at 6:33 PM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to taushaestenson's comment
denjaggers

When baseless accusations with nothing to back them up are made, why should the burden of proof lie with the accused? That would mean anyone at anytime can start slinging baseless lies and force others to defend themselves. I don't think that's ever a good idea.

June 12 2010 at 11:01 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
cyberfarm

When only politically correct writings are posted little of thought provoking value is to be found.
Why should reporters bother?

June 12 2010 at 1:54 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Joe

I am 100% in agreement. It would be great if other sites and our elected officials followed the same criteria.

June 12 2010 at 10:47 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
crossaddicted21

The writer is correct that less reporters where there but I disagree with the reasoning. Yes newspapers have cut back because of lack of sales due to their left leaning liberal bias. But the bigger reason in lack of coverage is that they do not want to put a light on the fact of the resurgance of conservtive movement going on across this country.

June 12 2010 at 8:20 AM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to crossaddicted21's comment
cjeffconnors

crossaddicted21,

The real reason that newspapers have cut back is because more and more people are getting their news from online sources. The same way that the post office has had to cut back since the advent of email. New technologies are displacing old ones, this phenomenon is known as progress. The "resurgance of conservtive movement" has nothing to do with the decline of the newspaper business. Conservative leaning newspapers are in as much trouble as progressive leaning ones are.

June 12 2010 at 11:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
tausands

With Tribune seeming to own most of the newspapers and cutting back for profits has forced the locals to get all their information off the wire, reporting as a whole, is dead.

June 12 2010 at 6:02 AM Report abuse +12 rate up rate down Reply
enorcel

Mr. Shapiro....Thanks for the strong, well written piece...On the other hand, I have been finding that the knowledge from some of the audience writing comments for this AOL platform occasionally can be very knowledgeable.

June 11 2010 at 11:39 PM Report abuse +17 rate up rate down Reply

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