Media Notes: Howard Kurtz on the Scott Brown story

Joyless: Maura Pensak, of Cambridge, Mass., right, reacts as Senate candidate Martha Coakley concedes defeat Tuesday.
Joyless: Maura Pensak, of Cambridge, Mass., right, reacts as Senate candidate Martha Coakley concedes defeat Tuesday. (Steven Senne/associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2010

If Martha Coakley's defeat in Massachusetts was a political earthquake, most journalists were slow to hear the tremors.

Her chances of beating an obscure Republican in the race for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat seemed so overwhelming that national news organizations largely ignored the contest until the stretch run. The mainstream media were lulled into complacency by Coakley's big lead in the polls and Massachusetts's reputation as the bluest of blue states.

"The national press, and frankly to some extent the local press, were taken by surprise," says Mark Jurkowitz, the Boston Globe's former media reporter. "The failure here was not to pick up on what was going on out there in the ether. A lot of journalists didn't know who Scott Brown was or failed to take him seriously because he was a Republican running in an overwhelmingly Democratic state," says Jurkowitz, now associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The Washington Post reported on Dec. 9 that Coakley, the state attorney general, had won the Democratic primary, "making her the favorite to win the seat next month. . . . Because of Massachusetts's heavily liberal tilt, Coakley is likely to become the state's first female senator."

The New York Times said the next day: "Now poised to become the first female senator from Massachusetts, Ms. Coakley, 56, is seen as a highly disciplined, if not passionate, politician who rarely surprises or missteps." A companion piece on her opponent, a state senator, said that "for Mr. Brown, it is an uphill race to victory in January."

But increasingly disaffected voters failed to follow the script. The Times didn't run a piece saying that Coakley's candidacy was in trouble until Jan. 8. The Post didn't do so until Jan. 11; the Los Angeles Times, until Jan. 14.

The network newscasts were a step farther behind. ABC's "World News" reported Jan. 15 that Coakley was in a tight contest. The "CBS Evening News" and "NBC Nightly News" aired reports on Sunday, Jan. 17 -- the day that President Obama campaigned for Coakley, and two days before the election. (In fairness, the Haiti tragedy was overshadowing domestic politics.)

Conservative pundits took up Brown's cause, while liberal commentators mostly expressed amazement that Coakley was blowing it. Sean Hannity conducted a sympathetic Fox News interview with Brown on Jan. 8, citing the New York Times piece on the race turning competitive.

In our increasingly predictive culture, journalists have a checkered record on elections. In the 2008 campaign alone, most of them wrote off John McCain a year before he won the nomination, gave Mike Huckabee little chance of winning the Iowa caucuses, and all but forecast that Hillary Clinton would be trounced in New Hampshire.

Normally, one state's special election might be a blip on the national media radar. But as a flood of stories eventually noted, Brown would become the 41st Republican senator, giving the party the ability to sustain a filibuster against Obama's health-care plan. And Brown had made his opposition to the health legislation a central plank of his campaign.

Media outlets had some fun with the story, noting that Coakley didn't know Curt Schilling had played for the Red Sox and that Brown had posed nude for Cosmopolitan in 1982. But much as journalists were slow to recognize the significance of the "tea party" movement last summer, most didn't treat this race as a serious contest until the final 10 days.

Even the Boston Globe seemed caught by surprise. To the paper's credit, it asked on Dec. 17: "Can Scott Brown actually win this thing?," while quickly adding that he was still "considered a long shot."

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