On (Whining About) The Media

In my almost-a-decade following #vtpoli, one of the recurring themes is how losing candidates carp about media coverage. If only the press had taken me seriously… if only they’d done an expose of my opponent… if only they’d focused on ideas instead of the horse race… if only.

You mostly hear it from marginal types, including just about any Republican not named “Phil Scott” running for statewide office, ideological extremists, or Vermin Supreme-style perpetual candidates.

The latest entry in this parade is Brenda Siegel, doughty Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. She’s gone so far as to call a press conference for Wednesday morning “to discuss the frontline communities and forgotten voices that have continually been marginalized in recent elections across the country, including the current Vermont Lt. Governor’s race.”

I’ll bet you a shiny new dime that she’ll point to herself as one of those “forgotten voices that havbe continually been marginalized.” It’s true that campaign coverage has mainly focused on the supposed front-runners, Molly Gray and Tim Ashe. And lately, has focused on attacks, counterattacks and fundraising rather than issues.

As a progressive policy advocate and single mom, Siegel comes from a decidedly unconventional background. And yes, that means she doesn’t get taken as seriously as Ashe, a veteran pol, or Gray, a newcomer who’s wowed the Democratic establishment. This, despite Siegel’s decent showing in the 2018 gubernatorial primary, where she finished third in a weak field.

Does she have a point? Well, kinda. But mostly no.

The single biggest factor to keep in mind is this: Hardly anybody reads #vtpoli coverage. Those who do, are dyed-in-the-wool politics fans or participants. They read, but they’re not moved by the coverage because most of them have made up their minds already. Believe me, I’ve spent years writing about Vermont politics, and I’m fully aware that the vast majority of Vermont voters have no idea who I am or what I do.

The recent stories about Molly Gray’s abysmal voting record may be an exception. But even there, the articles raised quite the hubbub among the Usual Suspects — but there’s no evidence they resonated with the electorate at large or moved the needle in any significant way.

Siegel’s dream profile would tout her as a brave outsider who represents those marginalized voices, a feisty underdog who rose out of poverty and personal tragedy to make an imprint on statewide politics.

But let’s say someone wrote that. Best case, cover story in Seven Days. Two things:

First, the story would come out, make a middling splash, trigger reaction from the chattering class, and life would go on. Want proof? Without looking, tell me what last week’s cover story was about.

(Answer, and I had to look it up: How Vermont restaurants are trying to adjust to life under coronavirus.)

Second, if Seven Days or another outlet did a deep dive on Siegel, they wouldn’t take her word at face value. They’d talk to current and former associates and members of her family, look at her batting average as a self-directed Statehouse lobbyist, and her administration of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival. They’d probably find some critics and some information that doesn’t fit her chosen narrative.

And that would make a middling splash, trigger reaction from the chattering class, and life would go on. Little would change in the electoral calculus.

For better or worse, though, it’s true that Siegel doesn’t get equal coverage. Is that wrong? The answer is complicated, but mostly it’s a “no”.

Political reporters and editors do spend far too much time on the horse race. They eagerly latch on to any sign of conflict. You know why? Because that’s the stuff that gets the juices flowing, the stuff that might actually get some clicks. Some worthy candidates get lost in the shuffle. I’d say the other person in the LG race, Sen. Debbie Ingram, has the most valid complaint here. She’s been a significant figure in the faith community for a long time, and has a compelling personal story of her own.

But beyond the personal failings of political reporters and their assignment editors, there is a legitimate winnowing process at work. Many people do vote tactically. In the Democratic LG race, for instance, a voter might prefer a female candidate, and vote for the woman seen as having the best chance to win. A loyal Democrat (or Progressive) may want to know which candidate has the backing of leaders they trust. Covering the horse race, while it’s often overemphasized, is a valid aspect of election coverage.

Plus, hard-core issue coverage attracts a lot fewer eyeballs than stories about conflict or who’s in front. There are two good reasons for this. First, most political readers have made up their minds. Second, candidates’ platforms may have little to do with how they’ll perform if elected. No officeholder can single-handedly will policies into being. Their position is important, but their ability to deliver is even more so. See: Shumlin, Peter.

If you’re an outsider, you do face the challenge of earning your coverage. You might think you’re being discriminated against. But in truth, candidates earn their coverage in different ways. Ashe has been a highly influential legislative leader for years. Gray has managed to win the trust and support of Democratic heavy hitters. That takes talent and credibility.

In the gubernatorial race, Phil Scott dominates every news cycle due to the pandemic, and by all appearances he’s coasting to re-election. David Zuckerman is the Democratic front-runner because of his record as an officeholder and his ties to Bernie Sanders. Rebecca Holcombe is fighting against that, and against her own barely-there political record.

That’s all, to coin a phrase, fair game. Candidates like Siegel (and Holcombe and Ingram and John Klar and Meg Hansen) face an uphill battle. Is that entirely fair? No, but it’s a lot fairer than she would claim. And it’s been the nature of our politics since George Washington rode his military record to the presidency. Complaining about it is like spitting into the wind.

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