The Problem With Newspapers — In Two Articles

Yesterday the Chicago teachers union went on strike. It was big news. Right on cue, Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog wrote an outstanding post titled, “Everything you need to know about the Chicago teachers’ strike, in one post.” It was not a misleading title — the post essentially delivered everything a person needed to know about the strike.

But if you woke up the following morning and picked up a copy of the Washington Post, you didn’t find a version of Matthews’ story. You found this story by Lyndsay Layton and Bill Turque entitled (in the print edition), “Strike Echoes Beyond Chicago.” After a standard introductory paragraph, the article takes an odd turn:

The fact that the fight revolves around Emanuel, a former chief of staff to President Obama, has pushed the municipal labor fight into prime time and complicated the political calculus. Obama is relying heavily on the support of unions in his reelection bid, and the Chicago strike immediately figured into the landscape of this fall’s political campaigns.

One paragraph into the story there is already wild speculation about what the strike means. Do Layton and Turque provide any evidence that a local labor dispute will have an impact on a presidential campaign that thus far has strictly been jobs with a dash foreign policy? Not really. Do political scientists agree with them? We don’t know. And how do we know the fight is in “prime time”? Is it because the Washington Post is writing stories about how it will influence the election?

The story goes on to rehash the disunity on education within the Democratic party before pivoting to Mitt Romney:

Within hours of its start, the strike migrated into the presidential race, providing a tactical opening for Republican candidate Mitt Romney and a sticky political situation for Obama.

Romney underscored the president’s relationship with unionized teachers and, more broadly, organized labor. In a statement, Romney, who has assailed unionized teachers as an obstacle to education reform, also seemed to be taking a page from the playbook of two Republican governors, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey, who made political gains by taking on public employee unions.

Again we hear about a bad situation for Obama and a “tactical” opening for Romney. But we still have no evidence that this will have any effect, and I bet if you polled a group of political scientists they would agree that the strike is likely to be inconsequential. It’s not until the 16th paragraph that the article gets to the issues at the heart of the strike.

The question is, why did the Washington Post put this story on the front page rather than a version of Matthews’ much more informative piece? If the goal of a newspaper is to relay important information to readers about the strike, it’s clear that Matthews’ piece was better.

One explanation is that editors felt the strike wasn’t important enough without being tied to the presidential race, or that the most important part of the story was its potential impact on the presidential race (a gross misjudgment in my opinion). Another explanation is that Matthews’ piece simply didn’t look like the kind of article that’s been appearing on front pages as long as anybody can remember. A third explanation is that the “savvy” piece that purports to tell the reader what’s about to happen — even if it’s a relatively baseless speculation — will always win out.

Of course it’s possible that the goal was not to educate readers about the strike. It’s possible that the goal was to use the strike to marginally increase the weight of a cheap horserace piece about the campaign. I would love to see the Post ombudsman discuss the paper’s decisions about their strike coverage. Does the paper think it’s more important to present readers with relatively unsubstantiated ideas about what might happen rather than facts about what’s actually happening? Will the Post still defend its decision if the presidential news cycle turns over and both parties forget about the strike? The reasons behind the Post’s decisions ought to reveal a lot about the gap between what newspapers think they’re doing and what society needs them to do.

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