Thursday, October 19, 2006


When Ronald Reagan was being dogged by the Iran/Contra scandal, his handlers had a way of dealing with the daily thump of bad news. They would trot him out in public occasionally, but only in front of blue skies, mountain landscapes and hot-air balloons. Reagan’s handlers knew that most people didn’t listen – they just watched the evening news. So, while the reporters rambled on about very serious things like arms-for-hostages, support for anti-government (yes) terrorists in Nicaragua, etc., the viewers would see their smiling, oblivious president, waving to the crowd against a colorful tableau. Sure, the news was bad. But the visuals were good.

In the newspaper business, it’s the headlines (and, sometimes, photos) that grab the most attention from the casual reader. Unfortunately, most people don’t read the newspaper – they look at it. The headline of a story is what is remembered. The placement of the story helps determine whether the story gets noticed at all. As newspaper writers since the beginning of time will tell you, all they can do is write the story. The headline and placement is up to the editors, if it makes it in the paper at all.

Today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contains two remarkable examples of this subtle craft, as practiced by the J-S’s inexplicably pro-Green editors. Did you notice that the most respected state-wide poll of voters, the Wisconsin Public Radio/St. Norbert poll that has set the standard in the state for years, found Jim Doyle leading Mark Green by a margin of 51% to 38% three weeks before the election? No? You missed it? Somewhere on 4th and State, high-fives and back-slaps are being exchanged.

The results of the St. Norbert polls have traditionally run in the paper on either the front page or, at least, the front page of the Metro section. Today, the results of the poll are neatly hidden on Page 10A, uncomfortably wrapping around a dominating 3/4-page color cell-phone ad.

The dramatic results of the poll, as you would expect, are deliberately diminished by the headline. In this whole campaign, it is very rare for a pro-Doyle news story headline in the J-S not to include some dismissive Green counter-spin in the headline itself. The headline about the poll – "Latest poll puts Doyle ahead, but Green camp doubts it" – is an incredibly well-crafted deliberate understatement of the poll and the impact of the results. Breaking it down piece-by-piece, we see the evil genius:
  • Latest poll... Here, the J-S treats the St. Norbert poll as just another, rather than having the status that they have earned and the weight that the paper has given to it in the past. "Latest" means "just another", easily dismissed and ignored.
  • ...puts Doyle ahead,... No, not ahead, WAY ahead. This is supposed to be a close race and the most distinguished poll in the state finds it to be a blowout. That’s news, if you want to recognize it and if you want it to be. The 38 percent for both Green and Van Hollen appears to be a ceiling, not a floor for Republicans running statewide races this year. Plus, the poll doesn’t "put" Doyle ahead – he has been leading the whole race.
  • ...but Green camp doubts it... Well, of course they do, or, of course they would say they do. Like the "Green will appeal" lead on the judge’s order validating the Elections Board order that Green return his illegal money, the "Green camp" response is hardly news and belongs somewhere in the middle of the story, where you put the required one paragraph of tripe from a spokesperson for each campaign. And that’s actually where the flack-noise ends up – no mention of Green’s brave "doubting" until paragraph 9. Since when is graph 9 stuff in the headline? You would also think that the Doyle campaign would get a chance to say something nice about the results (hey, how about a "as the Doyle camp expected" instead of the doubting-Green in the headline?), but that doesn’t come until graph 11. Again, the supposed Green skepticism gets the first word.

One argument that might be made by the paper is that the poll numbers were dumped, er, placed on page 10A is because the front page was all jammed up with important news. You would be wrong.

The desperate Republicans and their sycophants on wing-nut radio and the internet let fly yesterday with a "story" they have been holding for five months about the discovery (or, more likely, theft) of a Dem legislative strategy document in the State Capitol. The document itself is unremarkable and predictable in the extreme, but that hasn’t stopped the purveyors of the purloined document from stomping around in glee at their supposed October surprise.

Well, maybe this one was worth a mention on the obituary page (where a visit from Madeline Albright landed a couple of weeks ago) or a mention on the Spice Boys unpublished blog, where they could join their wing-nut friends to spin and salivate feverishly about the supposed implications.

But, no. There it is on the front page, above-the-fold: "GOP sees rival's strategy – Both parties may seek legal action on drafted plans". The article itself demonstrates how much of a no–big-deal it is, but for the exaggerated story-placement. But, again, the headlines:

  • GOP sees rival's strategy... How about "GOP had strategy for 5 months, still losing"? By falsely putting it in real time, the paper tries to create news that doesn’t exist.
  • Both parties may seek legal action... Well, there’s legal action and then there’s legal action. Republican say they will ask for a review from the Elections Board, but the Board lawyer already says in the article that the Dem’s did nothing wrong. The Democrats, on the other hand, are looking into criminal charges for the theft of the document, possibly out of Rep. Miller’s briefcase. Now, that’s news.

Regardless of what the article itself says, playing it up on the front page, with phony headlines implying immediacy and questions of legality, the Journal Sentinel again gives unjustified fodder to squawk-radio thugs and others who will take their selective view of the facts, make up others, and poison the political environment once again.

For all their phony posturing about wanting positive campaigns that are "for" and not "against", this is apparently what the J-S wants. That, and the illusion of a close race.

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