Media Notes: Howard Kurtz on the Scott Brown story

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2010; C01

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."

A Jan. 7 editorial said that even with polls tightening, "Scott Brown still needs a political miracle to win." And a Jan. 10 Globe poll seemed to seal the deal, giving Coakley a "solid" 15-point lead among likely voters.

Frank Phillips, the Globe's statehouse bureau chief, says he missed the last few days of the campaign by taking a personal trip with his wife that he finalized a couple of weeks earlier. "I made a decision at Christmas that this was not going to be an important race, others could handle it, I could be out of town," Phillips says.

But he says Brown was going nowhere earlier in the campaign: "What would you have written? 'Things were heating up'? Things weren't heating up. It would be unfair to say we had missed it, because it wasn't there."

While the Globe gradually reported signs of a closer race, it wasn't until Jan. 16 that Phillips definitively signaled the shift. He wrote that Coakley's strategy of ignoring Brown "turned out to be a major miscalculation" and that national Democrats were "now panicked about a neck-and-neck race."

She wasn't the only one who made a major miscalculation.

Honeymoon is history

It's hardly a news flash that President Obama's media coverage has turned sour. But he still outshines his recent predecessors.

Obama wound up 2009 with balanced coverage -- 49 percent positive, 51 percent negative -- according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which studied the network newscasts, Time, Newsweek and the New York Times front page. But he swooned from 59 percent positive in the first four months of the year to 39 percent positive from August through December.

The researchers, from George Mason and Chapman universities, found the president drawing 46 percent positive evaluations on the NBC, ABC and CBS evening newscasts. By comparison, those networks were harder on George W. Bush (23 percent positive), Bill Clinton (28 percent) and Ronald Reagan (26 percent) in the first year of their terms.

In a sharp contrast, Obama drew 22 percent positive coverage on the first half-hour of Fox News's "Special Report," which most resembles a newscast. The study found his evaluations "consistently negative" all year, skidding to 14 percent positive in the last four months.

Surfing the news

Those who believe Google is hurting newspapers online got some new ammunition last week.

Forty-four percent of those polled by Outsell Research said they scan headlines on Google "without accessing the newspaper sites." For many users, the report says, "headlines are enough and valuable, and that's been the crux of news wire and news companies' increasing complaints about Google's 'unfair' use of the news supply line."

But for all the whining, there's nothing "unfair" about it. Newspapers could have dominated this space if they had been more aggressive about linking to ostensible competitors. Instead, 31 percent of those who want news right away said in the survey that they turn to an aggregator -- which could range from Google or Yahoo to the Huffington Post -- while 8 percent said a newspaper site and 18 percent some other Web site.

Newspapers are built around the smorgasbord model, but search engines increasingly drive news appetites online. That's one reason the New York Times announced last week that it will begin charging non-subscribers in 2011, using a metered approach after a certain number of articles are provided free. That means all Times pieces can be linked to on Google, while the heaviest users pay the freight -- as opposed to the paper's last attempt, when columnists and special material were put behind a pay wall.

The Times -- and all the other papers studying the problem -- badly need more online revenue. But the danger is that readers will surf off after they hit the wall, especially for material they can find elsewhere. As blogger Jeff Jarvis put it: "Why charge your best customers? Why single them out? Why risk driving them away?"

Skeptics doubt that most consumers will pay for news stories the way they do for songs on iTunes. But the Times and its rivals have to try to change that mind-set, or their newsrooms will keep on shrinking.

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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