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Reporters take the bait

Last year I was interviewed by the Columbia Journalism Review on my belief (originally stated on this page) that we are in an era when many political reporters are amateurs and lack the political savvy of their predecessors like Jules Witcover, Ken Bode and Jack Germond. Here’s an example.

On September 25, 49 minutes after midnight, Zack Hudson of the Nevada Democratic Party sent out a news release that claimed Nevada Assembly Republican floor leader Pat Hickey had “said on a right wing radio show that he believes 2014 is a good opportunity for Nevada Republicans because ‘minorities and young people’ won’t be voting.”

It seemed utterly un-newsworthy to me, and it interested me only in that a mere four words out of whatever Hickey said were quoted, so I hit “reply” and asked for a transcript so I could check the full context. My reply bounced back to me. Apparently the Nevada Democratic Party media ops is like a semi-permeable membrane – stuff flows out but not in. So I sent the same message to the email address listed under “contact” on the Nevada Democratic Party website. I am still awaiting a reply.

At 10:45 that morning, Hudson followed up with a message telling reporters that the Hickey “story” had gone national. This was a reference to the fact that Think Progress, a progressive website, had picked it up. (The site calls itself “progressive” rather than liberal, which is good because it tends to be more Democratic than liberal.) I’m not sure an appearance on Think Progress qualifies it as a national story, but it provided what Hudson and Nevada Democrats would not – a more complete quote. This is the Hickey quote Think Progress provided:

“This is a great year in an off presidential election. No, seemingly no Democrat on the top of the ticket against Sandoval. No Harry Reid. Probably where we had a million voters turn out in 2012, we’ll have like 700,000. A lot of minorities, a lot of younger people will not turn out in an non-presidential year. It’s a great year for Republicans.”

Whew. How outrageous. As I understand it, Hickey said 2014 promises to be a great year for the GOP because the charismatic Obama and the well organized Reid will not be at the top of the ticket and groups in the Democratic base tend not to turn out to vote in non-presidential years.

Where’s the gaffe?

Yet the Nevada Appeal, Brian Sandoval, Raw Story, Dean Heller, the Washington Post and state legislator Michele Fiore jumped on the Democratic bandwagon and treated it as one. Some political figures said Hickey was engaged in voter suppression, an outrageous abuse of a loaded term with narrow meaning.

The only person I saw who kept the quote in perspective was Steve Sebelius at the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “Far from being a gaffe, this was a simple statement of fact. But it’s the kind of truth that Republicans aren’t supposed to tell, because it leads to the uncomfortable question about why minorities and younger people don’t vote Republican. And it makes it seem as if Republicans don’t really want minorities or younger people to vote.”

One of the most interesting reactions I got came from a Democratic state legislator, who said, “I wish the [Democratic] party headquarters would just shut up. They always pull these stunts. Pat Hickey tried more than any other Republican to try to create better working relationships in the legislature. How will the state party feel if he loses a party primary to one of the crazies?” Funny that should be mentioned. One crazy quickly cranked out a column calling for Hickey to be replaced as party leader.

What Hickey said is akin to things that are said commonly in politics by Democrats, Republicans, and reporters. Three years ago, Harry Reid said, “I don’t know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican, OK?”

Aaron Blake, the Washington Post reporter who found Hickey’s comments newsworthy last week, himself wrote this for a Capitol Hill newspaper in 2009: “Democrats are bracing for a precipitous drop in black voter turnout next month and beyond. Alarms are being rung about just how many African-Americans will vote without President Barack Obama on the ballot…”

Hickey didn’t ATTACK young people or minorities. He described their habits that redound to his party’s advantage. Yet Blake and other amateur journalists bit when Zack Hudson trailed his red herring in front of them. Meanwhile, real issues go wanting.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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