September 10, 2013

Carolyn Kaster / The Associated Press

The difficulty of putting together a web presentation categorizing likely congressional votes on a Syria strike came hurtling through the Huffington Post’s e-mail system on Sunday. The gripe related to the Huffington Post’s Syria vote tracker.

Hi, this is Meg Fraser with Congressman Jim Langevin of Rhode Island. I contacted HuffPo earlier this week about your Syria polling to have Rep. Langevin’s status changed to undecided, which it was. I see now it’s back to leaning yes. Congressman Langevin has not decided how he will vote, nor is he leaning one way or another. Please amend the list to reflect this position. Thank you!

Huffington Post now has Langevin listed as undecided/unknown. “It’s been fascinating to see what people are quibbling with,” says Ryan Grim, Huffington Post’s Washington bureau chief. “We’ve had a ton of people writing in to say, ‘Hey, you have my boss leaning yes, but in fact he’s undecided and usually we give them the benefit of the doubt even if we don’t quite believe them.” Though the Huffington Post gets some feedback directly from Congress, it is essentially aggregating its tracker from data provided by ThinkProgress. And responsibility for updating its presentation falls on no particular staffer. “Everybody’s chipping in. That’s how we do it — we’re the Anarchist Syndicate, right?”

The New York Times has thrown 10 people at its tracker, according to Paul Volpe, the paper’s deputy editor for politics. That number includes reporters, editors and graphics aces. They’ve been kept busy by the flood of feedback from the 535 PR-obsessed people whose positions they are abridging. “We’ve had members who had initially been in favor who contacted us to tell us they were undecided and contacted us again the same day to say that they were against,” says Volpe. No static graphics, in other words.

“The great part of this project is that it has prompted a lot of outreach from members both to give us their positions and also in some cases to indicate that they feel we’ve mischaracterized a statement of theirs,” says Volpe.

Fraser, the spokeswoman for Langevin, says that she has “clarified” the congressman’s position with four or five outlets, “some local and some national.” Those news sources, writes Fraser, have been “very responsive and helpful when asked to change the Congressman’s status. Of course, we always welcome getting a direct question about his position, on this and other issues, so that we can answer in our own words. When his position is misrepresented, it can raise a lot of questions and concerns among our constituents.”

And constituents have piled onto these platforms. Folks from Huffington Post, the New York Times and the Washington Post all say they’ve gotten a big assist from people who are watchdogging this-or-that senator or congresswoman, and they’re eager to see their findings represented in the grids. “It’s been an accidental citizen journalism project,” notes Grim.

Some of these feedbackers may be a touch confused, too. Aaron Blake, part of a team of four atop the Washington Post’s graphic vote-counting feature, reports that some people are lobbying him on the Syria question. “This is not our fight! Take care of Americans first! Raise minimum wage, reduce the deficit, educate our children with the money instead! This is their civil war and we cannot win! Stop American blood from being shed on Muslim soil!” wrote one reader to Blake not long after the Post posted its tracker, on Labor Day afternoon.

Blake, who has received “hundreds and hundreds” of messages, says, “It’s really interesting to see how interested people are in these vote counts.”

Perhaps that’s why there are so many outlets in the game. In addition to those already mentioned, ABC News, TPM, Firedoglake, and The Hill have taken swipes at the franchise.

Numbers across the trackers don’t necessarily line up. Right now, for instance, the New York Times estimates that 173 members of the House “reject or are leaning against a strike.” The Huffington Post/ThinkProgress finds 238 “no/lean no” votes in the House. And the Washington Post tallies 247 total “against” and “leaning no” votes in the House. Firedoglake has a total of 249 House members as “firm nay” and “leaning nay.”

So, what’s the deal? Is the New York Times just a touch more strict about what it means to “lean”? Yup. “We thought it was hard to make those judgments about whether someone was leaning or not,” says Volpe. “We thought that was more subjective and we wanted to be more conservative in the way we interpreted those.”

(Disclosure: The Erik Wemple Blog is a former colleague of Volpe, at TBD.com, and of Grim, at the Washington City Paper).

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.