What happens if there's a scandal and the N&O doesn't report it?

Quick: What causes a politician's popularity to tank? A controversial vote, weak performance, general voter unrest ... all can cause poll numbers to drift downward.

But for your approval ratings to really bottom out, it takes a scandal.

John Edwards knows this. So does former N.C. Gov. Mike Easley, a once popular politician who, after months of being dogged about campaign finance problems, finds his approvals at a shockingly low 16%.

But who creates political scandals? The media, of course (often thanks to intel provided by operatives from the other side). Which is why it's more than a bit odd how Ben Niolet, a conservative political writer for the Raleigh News & Observer, decided to cover news of Easley's popularity nosedive this week. In a Feb. 23 post, Niolet noted the ex-guv's latest poll stats, and then wrote:

The polls [sic] results are hardly surprising, given the steady beat of stories about federal and state investigations into Easley's administration.

That link Niolet included on the word "beat" is, surprisingly, to the News & Observer's own full-court coverage of the Easley scandal.

Niolet's post is more than strangely self-referential: I think it also points to deeper problems with how the N&O and media cover political scandals and polls.

First, isn't it a bit unsavory for the N&O to take credit for causing the demise of Easley's popularity? I realize the old-school mantra of "we report, you decide" is quaint in today's post-objective media world. But the N&O's approach, which apparently amounts to "we told you what to think about Easley, and it worked!" seems to be taking things too far.

Second: If the N&O really does believe it deserves credit for bringing down Easley, what does that say about their coverage of other politicians?

For example: Is the reason that North Carolina's Republican candidates for governor aren't also as unpopular as rocking chairs at a cat convention because they haven't done anything wrong -- or because the N&O didn't report it?

That isn't a rhetorical question. As Facing South reported last October, in the final hours of the state hearings into Gov. Easley -- closely followed by Niolet and the N&O -- Democratic lawyers produced evidence that three of Easley's Republican challengers were likely guilty of failing to report campaign flights, the very issue that prompted the Easley investigation.

To recap, an affidavit from Anthony Asbridge, an IRS investigator for 22 years, documented likely campaign reporting failures by at least three GOP gubernatorial candidates:

* State legislator Patrick Ballantine, Republican nominee for governor in 2004, "conducted an eight (8) city campaign tour by airplane, visiting, among others, the town of Wilmington, Manteo, and Greenville." The flights apparently were never reported.

* Fred Smith, a 2008 GOP gubernatorial candidate, "announced his intention to visit each of the one hundred (100) counties in the State" by plane, and apparently did so. But his campaign didn't report the flights, something he was required to do even if he owned the plane.

* Bill Graham was also a Republican candidate in 2008 and made over 150 flights on a Beech aircraft. Yet Asbridge's investigation found "no report of any disbursement for the payment of air travel ... nor any report of any in-kind contribution" for the flights.

These bombshells barely registered in the News & Observer's (or the rest of the media's)  wall-to-wall coverage of the Easley hearings. No blaring headlines. No award-seeking investigative series. No personal swipes chalking up the GOP's apparent campaign violations to a misguided sense of "privilege" and "arrogance."

In short, no scandal.

So is it any surprise that Ballantine, Smith and Graham aren't now reading dispatches from Niolet that their approval ratings are in the toilet?

The issue came up again this week, when the state Democratic Party held a press conference drawing attention to apparent inconsistencies in the campaign reports of another Republican candidate, Charlotte's Pat McCrory. But in two different news stories, the N&O (Niolet again) downplayed the allegations as merely "the political equivalent of a returned serve" to GOP charges against current Gov. Beverly Perdue (D).

The obvious subtext: Move along, nothing to see here but partisan bickering. Certainly nothing as interesting as Easley, whose transgressions -- while legally similar -- somehow suggest a more profound moral failing.

Just to be clear: The point isn't that the GOP's campaign reporting problems get Easley off the hook, or that two wrongs make a right.

The issue is that, if the News & Observer and the media truly believe in their power to shape public opinion and influence the fate of politicians and politics -- and the N&O's made no secret about that -- shouldn't they use that power more even-handedly and responsibly?

Also posted at Facing South, blog of the Institute for Southern Studies.


Great post, Chris

The N&O has flashes of brilliance surrounded by a dark passion for toppling whomever is in power. That passion takes up so much of their energy that they can't even see - let alone act - on the sleaze unfolding with Tom Fetzer, NCGOP corruption, etc., etc.

Thank God for the ISS

You folks are wonderful, Chris. This should be plastered on the front page of the N&O. If they were intent on doing their job, that is.

agree with you

Try getting some ink when you are merely becoming a candidate or explaining view points, and have done nothing wrong. I have been in the N&O once after a year of campaigning. I know they are short-handed and all, but it is discouraging to do positive things in the political arena and see those efforts bypassed in favor of reporting on the scandal of the week.

By-the-way, I am the Democratic nominee for the NC Senate, Dist. 15, as of noon today because no other Democrat filed. I will face Republican Neal Hunt this fall. I thought I'd let Blue NC know, in case it isn't in the N&O tomorrow.

Charles Malone

Charles Malone

Let's go, Charles!

How about writing a series of blog posts about your district, about Hunt, about the real burdens his policies would place on the district if, heaven help us, his approach to governing were actually implemented.

blog post

Thank you, James, for the suggestion. It is a good idea and I plan to continue to submit posts about the areas of concern you have mentioned.

It will be my goal to not only spell out why one should vote for me, but why they should not vote for Sen. Hunt. My approach is forward looking and inclusive, while his is backward looking and exclusive. From that premise, we will draw out our differences on particular issues.

Charles Malone

Charles Malone

Congratulations Charles!

I know that gives you a running start having no primary challenger. Thanks for running. North Carolina needs you.

Thank you

Thank you, LoftT, and know I appreciate the advantage of avoiding a party primary. Since I face a well-funded Republican incumbent, and I am a plain, ordinary state employee, I will need all the time and effort allowable to even the odds, so to speak, and win the election.

It will be with the people's help, bit by bit, that I will prevail. I urge everyone to give to the campaign--just $10 or $20 helps--and we can get the message out.

Charles Malone

Charles Malone

What about press releases?

Charles, I am no political advisor, but I can remember when I worked in a couple of campaigns in years past the candidate (or maybe one of their advisors or manager) initiated a number of "press releases" that the News & Observer and other local papers would print. I think they were limited to length and frequency, but were accepted nonetheless.

Has that been done away with now? Just a thought.

Good idea

It is a good idea. I've submitted a few and not had success, but I will continue to try and will label my comments under the "press release" banner.

As the party nominee, I may get more attention. I hand delivered CD media kits, announcement statement, etc., to several papers, and only the N&O published a bit of it in Under the Dome. Yet, it is early in the campaign season and coverage will improve as more time goes by. My emphasis now is spending many hours weekly on the phone trying to raise money. I will soldier on and am not discouraged.

Charles Malone

Charles Malone