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A Vote for Coverage of Substance

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Post needs to tell us more than we know about John McCain and Barack Obama: what they stand for, what voters are thinking about them and what each is likely to do if elected.

Post reporters are good at the daily political stories and at covering the latest gaffes, and chief political reporter Dan Balz is the best at seeing through and beyond what is happening today. But what I'm more concerned about is something I've harped on repeatedly -- more biography and more substantial issues coverage.

Readers submit complaints and advice daily, wanting The Post to be fair to their preferred candidates, though that often means: Tilt toward my guy.

Readers backing Barack Obama think the press loves John McCain. Reporters enjoy mixing it up with McCain, something Obama doesn't do as much. But that doesn't mean they're cutting McCain slack.

Readers who support McCain are right to say that Obama has gotten more coverage, mainly because McCain is so much better known than Obama, the phenom; in addition, the long primary campaign brought Obama heightened visibility. The Project for Excellence in Journalism has documented the coverage disparity in the past five weeks among national news media.

A frustrated reader, Michael Gabel of Cheverly, wrote last week to complain that while The Post had written about Obama's mortgage, nothing had been written recently about McCain's many homes (that's right), his first marriage (that's right) and that property taxes had not been paid until recently on a condominium in La Jolla, Calif., owned by a trust controlled by his wife, Cindy (an Associated Press story about this appeared on washingtonpost.com).

Liberal Web sites were critical of a Washington Post-ABC News poll question they said favored McCain on Iraq. The question: "Obama has proposed a timetable to withdraw most U.S. forces from Iraq within 16 months of his taking office. McCain has opposed a specific timetable and said events should dictate when troops are withdrawn. Which approach do you prefer -- a timetable or no timetable?" The question didn't seem unfair to me.

My monitoring of political stories since Nov. 12, done with my assistant Jean Hwang, shows that almost twice as many "horse race" stories (675) have been written as stories on issues (295) and biographical background (99). Part of that reflects the long primary campaign and the number of candidates.

Horse-race stories aren't all bad. It's important to know what is happening in the campaigns; that's often reported in The Trail blog. I've read elsewhere that relations are still rocky and uncertain between supporters of Obama and Hillary Clinton, but I haven't seen that story in The Post.

The New York Times' "The Long Run" delved deeply and early into candidates' backgrounds. The Post has not done nearly as much. For instance, McCain has been a smart aleck since high school. How would that persona affect the way he would operate as president? Obama had an exotic childhood. How did growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia shape him as an adult?

Bill Hamilton, The Post's assistant managing editor for politics, said, "We have every intention of telling the life stories of Obama and McCain, but at a time when readers are most focused on the election. And the same goes for exploring the issues that are driving this campaign." He said that two fine writers, Michael Leahy on McCain and David Maraniss on Obama, have been assigned to do biographies.

Candidates' policy speeches often end up being covered in short stories without detail or context as to whether what is being proposed might work. The policy papers should be dissected. A good start were recent pieces on Social Security and quoting fiscal experts as saying that it will be tough for the new president to launch any initiatives.

You have to look beyond the paper's news pages for analysis. When McCain said that he would balance the budget by 2013, the plan wasn't critically examined except in an editorial; the Ideas Primary editorials have provided much-needed insight into the issues. Much of The Post's accountability coverage is done in Michael Dobbs's Fact Checker, which unfortunately is seldom in the paper. Neither is media writer Howard Kurtz's Ad Watch. If you're not looking online for Post coverage, you're missing some of the best stuff.

Voters want to know, especially in a troubled economy, about their pocketbooks. I admired a Wall Street Journal story and another on National Public Radio that reported how Obama and McCain might be expected to change tax policy. The Post needs to do these kinds of stories.

Their voting records should be explored extensively. Is Obama really relentlessly liberal? Is McCain really so conservative? Are both posing as centrists? While The Post has written about who advises the two candidates, I want to know what the advice is and whether it is being taken.

Tom Huff of Bealeton, Va., wrote recently and got it just right: "I really hope The Post's coverage of the election doesn't sink into a quagmire of process, politics and inside-the-Beltway chess games at the expense of issues that really affect our lives. . . . If all the news outlets want to talk solely about insider issues, that's all we'll know about. But if the focus is kept as keen as a laser beam on the critical issues of our times, then that's what the campaign will be about. That's what it has to be about. If The Post's staffers are true watchdogs of government, then that is the job that should be done. That's what we pay for with our subscription. Please tell your writers not to blow it this time."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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