By Jim Pumarlo
The hyper partisanship in today’s political landscape was on full display with passage of the American Rescue Plan. It passed on a straight party-line vote.
A Minnesota congressman joined in the chorus of his fellow Republicans characterizing the bill as bloated and wasteful.
Weeks later, he issued a new round of statements. This time, he took credit for the millions of dollars allocated for local projects courtesy of the $1.9 trillion economic relief package.
Double-speak? The lawmaker staunchly defended both his vote and taking credit for the local funding. He was a longstanding advocate for the projects, but opposed the federal plan as full of spending unrelated to COVID-19.
Such exchanges are commonplace at all levels of government as omnibus bills are cobbled together to include anything and everything. It makes great campaign fodder for incumbents and challengers alike in the next election cycle. It’s unfortunate, as well, that most incumbents can get by with having it both ways without constituents playing close attention.
But such proclamations by politicians are an excellent reminder for editors and reporters to be the eyes and ears for their readers and to pay close attention to the PR machines.
Don’t misinterpret. Politicians campaign on the ability to deliver critical votes – for policies and dollars – that benefit local interests. When they do so, they deserve to take credit. At the same time, the partisan debate over the federal relief package should raise the red flag for editors when lawmakers – especially those staunchly opposed to the measure – suddenly “announce” money for local projects.
Incumbents always have taken advantage of the campaign season to step up their public relations efforts. Staffs are adept at seeking and seizing every opportunity.
A lawmaker shows up at a county board meeting to support federal funding for a highway project or a veterans home. An incumbent facing a stiff election challenge coincidentally asks for time on a city council agenda to brief local officials on federal or state legislative issues. A legislative candidate – again, during the heat of a campaign – shows up at a school board meeting to voice support for a building referendum or for more state dollars for education in the interest of closing the academic achievement gap.
Election cycles unfortunately have become year-round affairs, especially the higher you climb the political ladder. Lawmakers routinely seize all chances to get their names in newspapers.
That’s understandable, but it’s no excuse for newsrooms to ignore the obvious ploys for publicity. A lawmaker announces the rules for a state quilting contest. Another reports that shipping season has closed on the local waterway. Others remind property owners when taxes are due.
These items may well be legitimate news, and kudos to the staffs for creativity. But should a lawmaker be given credit – even be mentioned – in the story? Absolutely not. There is no connection whatsoever between the news and the politician.
Funding for local projects delivered by the federal relief bill is news. The reports may well warrant mention of a local member of Congress, but it’s highly questionable whether that is the story lead. A quote is likely sufficient coverage unless there are extenuating circumstances.
The flurry of press releases announcing details of the federal relief package draws attention to the broader issue of when to acknowledge a connection between the “whom” and “what” in everyday reporting. There is no universal right or wrong, but decisions demand consistency. Newsrooms should develop general guidelines, keeping in mind that all circumstances must be reviewed on their individual merits.
Newspapers typically confront these decisions in connection with “bad” or “uncomfortable” news. Take, for example, a business owner who asks that am embarrassing DWI ticket not be reported on the premise that the company is one of the newspaper’s largest advertisers.
Editors should be especially wary when prominent residents – politicians included – expect favorable treatment. These individuals expect that certain items will be published – and, at minimum, that they will be connected to this good news – items that would not ordinarily be reported.
Newspapers should take pause and evaluate. Bending the rules for “good” news can produce just as many headaches for editors as being asked to look the other way when “bad” news occurs.
Jim Pumarlo is former editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. He writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.