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Governing is the first story

One of the things I like about the Las Vegas Review Journal website is that its home page provides a distinction between political stories and government stories. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell that journalism accepts such a distinction. Reporters constantly miss important policy stories in order to find less important political angles on those same stories.

In June, the Associated Press carried a story that began, “When Republican governors gathered in Las Vegas in November to discuss how to recover from their party’s latest electoral drubbing, the popular GOP governor of Nevada wasn’t there. Instead, Brian Sandoval was in Washington, D.C., meeting with Obama administration officials to seal the deal that made him the first Republican governor to expand Medicaid as part of the president’s health care initiative. It was part of the pragmatic, centrist, low-key approach that has kept Sandoval popular in a Democratic-trending state and makes him the heavy favorite in his re-election bid next year. With all the hand-wringing about the future of the GOP, the party has an often-overlooked strength: popular governors like Sandoval who run most of the states in the nation, testing new policies, winning credit for the economic recovery and building records and expertise for possible runs at national office.”

The rest of the story was about ways Republicans could make themselves more appealing to the electorate.

Hey, here’s a thought: Maybe what Sandoval did in D.C. about health care is of interest to readers. What kind of deal did he get from the administration? What did Nevada patients gain or lose? What do insurance companies get? What does it say about the deals other states get? I have been unable to find any Associated Press that reports what Sandoval did in D.C. on that trip. I’m not knocking political stories, as long as they are done after the hard news is covered.

Political stories like this, of course, are easy. Twenty minutes on the phone and ten minutes at the keyboard and they’re finished. Policy stories, on the other hand, require more interviews and more careful writing.

Here’s the lead on a story that ran last month in the Los Angeles Times:

“Hillary Rodham Clinton continued her long, slow flirtation with the 2016 presidential campaign Monday, delivering the first in a promised series of speeches on restoring faith in government and other institutions corroded by cynicism.”

Within the reality of this story, nothing she said in the speech after that sentence was going to be received at face value. The first half of the sentence had corroded the entire story with cynicism.

The story DID cover the speech, but it was laced with political analysis. It devoted 317 words to the speech, 260 to Clinton’s alleged presidential campaign.

A few days ago, Jules Witcover – one of the nation’s best political reporters – wrote, “With Congress in the doldrums of summer recess, our town has inevitably sunk to the game of making political mountains out of molehills. The latest example is disclosure that the campaign manager of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell confided to a political associate, last January no less, that he was ‘sort of holding my nose for two years’ working for Mr. McConnell. He was doing so, he explained, in hope of it being ‘a big benefit’ for a previous employer, Sen. Rand Paul, also of Kentucky, who is said to have 2016 presidential aspirations. … [T]he news media’s spotlight, spread widely by an Internet that seizes on every tidbit (including in this preachy column), compounds the offense. In the summer lull of truly significant news coming out of vacationing Washington, an obscure low-level political player gets his 15 minutes of fame, or infamy.”

There is an alternative, though. No one forces D.C. reporters to report on trivia. There are policy stories in every building in the District of Columbia. The nation’s political press often misses big stories completely. Few of them did reporting that anticipated the entirely predictable 1980s savings and loan collapse, for instance, which was like missing an elephant in the hall closet. Only one major press entity – Knight Ridder – uncovered truths about Bush/Cheney claims before the Iraq war began. And few predicted the foreseeable foreclosure crisis that produced our current economic doldrums.

News that goes uncovered can’t be blamed for the terrible quality of news coverage.

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