One reader's feedback for new Des Moines Register publisher David Chivers

David Chivers started work yesterday as the Des Moines Register’s president and publisher. The Des Moines native comes from a strong background in digital marketing. Speaking to Register employees on the day Gannett announced his hiring, Chivers acknowledged he has a lot to learn about the newspaper and said he welcomed “candid discussions” on how to “push the brand and the business forward.”

In that spirit, I offer my thoughts on ways the Register could better serve readers who rely on the paper for political news. Balanced, fact-based reporting is central to the Register’s brand as “the newspaper Iowa depends upon.” Unfortunately, last year’s election coverage hurt the Register’s reputation among many politically-engaged Iowans. Acknowledging the problem is essential to avoid compounding the damage during the upcoming Iowa caucus campaign.

By way of background, I have been reading the Des Moines Register for most of my life. Chivers reminisced about his “ink-stained hands” as a newspaper delivery boy in Des Moines. My ink-stained hands came from clipping and filing countless articles on national and world affairs in preparation for high school speech competitions. When I went to college on the east coast, before the internet existed, I subscribed to the Register by mail to get my regular fix of Iowa news, Brian Duffy, Donald Kaul, and David Yepsen. To my friends who didn’t understand why I would bother with a home-town paper, I boasted that the Register had been ranked one of the top ten newspapers in the country. During those years, I read Jane Schorer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning articles about a rape victim who agreed to be identified by name and was proud that the series sparked a national conversation about media coverage of rape.

My attachment to the Des Moines Register runs deep.

After a number of years living overseas, when I read the newspaper only sporadically, this political junkie has been reading the Register on a daily basis again since 2002.

I’m no marketing expert, but if I were trying to push forward the “newspaper Iowa depends upon” brand, I would focus on a few content-related goals.

1. Clean up the copy.

2. Report more on what the government is doing, especially Iowa’s representatives in the federal government.

3. Make sure campaign coverage isn’t slanted toward or against certain candidates.

Let’s start with the problem that should be easiest to address. The Register’s copy isn’t as clean as it used to be, which was perhaps inevitable following successive rounds of newsroom layoffs. A memo delivered earlier this year advised Register reporters to in effect copy-edit their own work (using spellcheck and other computer tools) or “ask a colleague to read your copy for flow, logic, context and conciseness.”

Take it from someone who worked with good editors at previous jobs but now proofreads all of her own writing: the author will inevitably overlook some errors and won’t always recognize clarity problems, because she knows what she meant to say. Computer programs won’t catch every typo, missing word, redundancy, or dangling modifier either. Asking over-extended colleagues to do you a favor doesn’t sound like a fool-proof solution. If the Register lacks the funds to employ more designated copy editors, managers should change the process somehow to get more sets of eyes reading every piece before publication.  

Second point: Ever since Gannett eliminated the Register’s Washington bureau and the positions previously held by Jane Norman and Philip Brasher, coverage of Iowa’s federal officials has suffered. If a member of Congress didn’t brag about it in a press release, conference call, or social media post, the Register’s readers are not likely ever to learn that it happened. Yet thousands or in some cases hundreds of thousands of Iowans would be affected by Congressional votes that fly below the radar.

Surely there must be some way to share a Washington-based correspondent with other Gannett publications, to keep Iowans more informed about those who shape federal policies on our behalf.

The Register still provides some excellent coverage of state and local government. I was relieved to see Chivers acknowledge the value of public-interest reporting, even if those stories don’t draw the largest number of online views. No other Iowa news organization can match the Register’s capacity in this area. The paper has gifted writers in “Readers’ Watchdog” Lee Rood and investigative reporter Jason Clayworth, and editor Amalie Nash has a background in investigative journalism. You can’t overstate the value of Clark Kauffman’s reporting on nursing homes or writing by Clayworth and Grant Rodgers on civil forfeiture or former Register reporter Perry Beeman exposing the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s influence on state policy regarding agricultural runoff.

Not that there isn’t room to improve. I miss the time when reporters for the Register and the Associated Press competed against each other for scoops. (These days the Register often cedes public policy stories to the AP’s Ryan Foley or David Pitt.) The Register could raise more questions about local economic development projects, which may involve large public incentives. Local government and business coverage sometimes has too much of a cheerleader quality. But overall, the content is solid.  

The third problem is more awkward to discuss.

UNUSUAL PRACTICES

Although the Register’s political reporting is a team effort, this post is mostly concerned with the work of chief politics correspondent Jennifer Jacobs. To much of the media world, Jacobs and columnist Kathie Obradovich are the faces of the Register when it comes to Iowa elections. Since Obradovich primarily writes commentary, Jacobs often reports the hottest political story of the day.

Over the past year, the most problematic stories I’ve noticed in the Register have appeared under Jacobs’ byline. This post is by no means comprehensive; I’m only able to cover a few low points. To any journalism students who may be reading: a thorough analysis of Jacobs’ 2014 election coverage would make a good topic for a senior or master’s thesis.

One odd thing about Jacobs’ work is that certain rules of journalism don’t seem to apply to her. For instance, she sometimes sends draft articles to the subject for input before publishing. I’m not talking about double-checking a fact or confirming the accuracy of a quote. I mean that some newsmakers are fortunate enough to review and comment on a full draft story by Jacobs pre-publication. Cityview’s “Civic Skinny” columnist was the first to describe this “unusual newsroom practice” (quite the understatement) last summer. Since then, I have spoken to others who were grateful for similar opportunities, and have seen copies of e-mail correspondence between Jacobs and one newsmaker’s PR consultant, in which the journalist sought feedback on the overall tone of the story and whether to mention some details. It makes me wonder whether other paid consultants have had a chance to shape the Register’s news content.

The special rules came to mind as I read Amalie Nash’s column in the Sunday Des Moines Register on April 26. In that piece, the Register’s editor and vice president for audience engagement explained the paper’s “stringent policy and process involving the use of anonymous sources.” Excerpt:

It’s especially important to emphasize our policy during this political season, when strategists and insiders routinely ask for anonymity when talking to the media. There may be times we don’t have a story that’s being reported by other media or don’t have it first because we insist on having named sources instead of agreeing to use anonymous people.

In general, our policy in almost all instances is to require a named source on the record. We make exceptions when the information we are reporting is critical for readers to know and cannot be obtained from any other credible, on-the-record sources. We typically agree to publish only after getting the same information from two or more anonymous sources, both of whom have firsthand knowledge of a situation and learned of the information independently.

We consider the motive of the sources and the reasoning for the request to be unnamed. Is it someone who is not authorized to speak and would be fired for providing information? Is it a witness to a crime who could be targeted? Or is it someone with an ax to grind or who simply does not want to be held responsible for what he or she says?

The policy sounds sensible, and on the whole, the Register’s staff strike me as judicious in their use of anonymous sources. At the same time, it’s hard to reconcile the criteria Nash laid out with the numerous unnamed sources who appear in Jacobs’ stories: Republican operatives speculating on possible GOP candidates for U.S. Senate; GOP operatives who “think [Democratic Senate candidate Bruce] Braley is responding to one gaffe by making another one”; a “GOP political insider” who said Sam Clovis running for state treasurer would hurt Braley’s chances in the Senate race; “activists” and “strategists” theorizing about lessons from the 2014 U.S. Senate election; or Democratic “union members” complaining about the “Big Environmental lobby.”

Using blind quotes wouldn’t bother me if Jacobs’ reporting were otherwise fair and balanced. But too often her story selection and framing leave a lot to be desired.

MEDIA EFFECTS AND MEDIA BIAS

Communications researchers have identified several ways in which the media can affect public opinion and voting behavior. Agenda-setting refers to reporters’ ability through story selection to affect what news consumers consider salient issues. The classic construction is that the media “don’t tell people what to think” but do tell people “what to think about.” For instance, increasing media coverage of crime can make people believe violent crime is becoming more prevalent, even as crime rates fall.

In the context of an election campaign, priming refers to voters being more likely to evaluate candidates on issues that are getting more attention in news reports. Media coverage might not change a person’s belief in higher education spending or expanded health insurance coverage. Nevertheless, a news environment saturated with stories about the Ebola virus or ISIS terrorism might push fears about safety and security to the front burner when that person is deciding how to vote. Agenda-setting and priming effects can change voters’ behavior even if the news reports are written in a completely even-handed way.

Framing research examines subtle cues from the journalist, which can affect how people evaluate competing views or assign blame for social problems. For example, in coverage of a major flood, the frame may determine whether readers see the natural disaster as a weather phenomenon completely outside human control, or attribute some of the flooding to land use choices. Research suggests that news reports are more influential than editorial columns or other explicit political advocacy, because as Robert Entman wrote in his classic book Democracy Without Citizens, editorials “are labeled as opinion and lack the legitimizing mantle of objectivity, and they appear far from the front page.”

Slanted story selection and framing don’t necessarily reflect a deliberate scheme to manipulate readers. They can easily grow out of journalists’ or editors’ unconscious biases. Newsroom diversity is important for many reasons, including the risk that a media outlet run by white men will systematically overlook certain perspectives or issues.

THE REGISTER’S 2014 U.S. SENATE ELECTION COVERAGE

This state’s most competitive election in 2014 pitted Republican Joni Ernst against Democrat Bruce Braley. Iowa’s first U.S. Senate race in 40 years with no incumbent generated a huge volume of stories in the Register. Other commentators have noted the paper’s generally sparse coverage of Ernst’s far-right statements and policy stances, compared to extensive references to Braley’s infamous comments about Senator Chuck Grassley. Alec McGillis’ piece for the New Republic on the “broken media landscape” in Iowa is a good read on the lack of scrutiny the Register and other media applied to Ernst. There’s no need to retread that ground here.

A few examples of Jacobs’ work are worth noting, however.

As mentioned above, news reports about a particular problem or policy can “prime” voters to evaluate candidates on that issue. In late June and early July, Braley held round tables around Iowa to highlight his differences with Ernst on Social Security. For many election cycles, Democratic candidates have sought to focus voters’ attention on the New Deal capstone, which affects more Americans than almost any other federal program. Hundreds of thousands of Iowans who cast ballots in 2014 (and I would guess a substantial share of newspaper subscribers) fall into age groups that would be most immediately affected by privatizing Social Security for future retirees.

Nearly every major Iowa newspaper covered Braley’s Social Security-themed events. Click through to read stories published in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier, Quad-City Times, Sioux City Journal, Mason City Globe-Gazette, Burlington Hawk Eye, Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil, Ames Tribune, and the Ottumwa Courier. Many broadcast media covered the Social Security tour as well: for instance, WHO-TV in Des Moines, KTVO in Ottumwa, and Radio Iowa.

Guess who didn’t cover Braley’s Social Security tour? Jacobs. To my knowledge, neither did anyone else at the Register.

Meanwhile, Jacobs found time to write a story on July 7 headlined, “Does Braley claim to be a farmer in this parade route exchange?” In her lede, she made clear how she would answer that question:

Democrat Bruce Braley, who was caught on tape in January making a remark that seemed to besmirch Iowa farmers, has been caught on tape seemingly claiming to be one.

Notice how Jacobs transformed Braley’s original comment, about a farmer with no legal training potentially chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee, into an insult to all Iowa farmers. That fit perfectly with Republican efforts to define Braley as arrogant and elitist.

In the same breath, Jacobs asserted that Braley was “caught on tape” a second time. The phrase implies a shameful action occurred, because no one gets “caught on tape” doing something admirable or neutral.

Before getting as far as the lede, online readers saw a video containing the parade clip at the top of the Register’s page. Whether or not one clicked to play the video, the title running across the screen was visible and presented the damning accusation as fact: “Trial Lawyer Bruce Braley tells voter he is a farmer.”

Virtually no journalist outside conservative websites picked up this story. Anyone who had heard Braley’s stump speeches over the years or read his official bio would know that he never claimed to be a farmer. Jacobs herself had reported that Braley sought to demonstrate “street cred” on farming by talking about growing up in rural Iowa, doing chores on his grandparents’ farm, and working on other farms as a teenager. The idea that an enraged candidate would suddenly decide to lie to a random July 4 parade watcher (the line pro-Ernst consultant David Kochel was pushing on social media at the time Jacobs’ story appeared) made much less sense than the Braley campaign’s explanation: that he answered, “So am I” to what he thought he had heard: “We’re for farmers.”

Further down in the Jacobs story:

Republicans [sic] operatives think Braley is responding to one gaffe by making another one. During a private fundraiser in Texas in January, Braley seemingly disparaged both farmers and Iowa’s popular Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. He called Grassley “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”

Which operatives think that? How does concealing their identity meet the Register’s standards for using anonymous sources?

Shortly thereafter, The Iowa Republican blog accused Braley of threatening to sue a neighbor over wandering chickens. Instead of fact-checking the exaggerated claims (as Lauren Carroll did later for Politifact), Jacobs passed along the spin in her piece about an attack web video launched by Karl Rove’s super-PAC.

Within a short time span, Jacobs wrote two pieces that originated from partisan Republican sources. Neither had anything to do with substantive issues. Both cast Braley in an unflattering light. Yet Jacobs ignored a Braley campaign tour that most Iowa media judged newsworthy. I can’t speak to Jacobs’ thought process, but to an outsider, those choices made the Register’s chief politics reporter look invested in validating GOP messages about Braley while avoiding a story that would play to the Democratic candidate’s strengths.

To be clear: I am not blaming Jacobs or the Register for the outcome of the U.S. Senate race. The national wave took out stronger Democratic candidates than Braley who were running better campaigns. Braley lost by more than 8 points and underperformed almost across the board, including in his home county and in parts of the state where the Register’s penetration is minimal.

I am saying Jacobs’ preference for Ernst was apparent, continually. I wondered whether Kochel could come up with any claim about Braley that was too outlandish to end up on the Register’s news pages. As the election approached, some people in the central Iowa journalistic community speculated that Jacobs might take a job on the future Senator Ernst’s staff. I don’t remember hearing any similar rumor about any Register correspondent during any previous election cycle.

OTHER 2014 ELECTION COVERAGE

I’ve concentrated on the Senate race because it was the most important Iowa election in 2014, but a Republican slant came through in other campaign reporting as well. An October 11 article analyzed some findings from a survey Selzer & Co conducted for the Register. The Jacobs lede for “Iowa Poll: In 2012 re-run, Romney wins”:

Iowa would go to Mitt Romney if there were a do-over of the 2012 presidential election today.

The Republican former private equity firm CEO would beat President Barack Obama by 2 percentage points, 41 percent to 39 percent, with 2014 likely voters, the new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll shows.

The poll data don’t support the claim. Turnout drops by roughly a third for Iowa midterms, compared to presidential election years. This poll shows Romney narrowly leading the president among respondents who are likely to vote in November 2014, but a “do-over” of the presidential race would bring out voters who only care about presidential elections. Jacobs should have written something along the lines of: Iowans who plan to vote in this year’s election narrowly prefer Mitt Romney to President Barack Obama.

The article gets worse–worse than I remembered when I sat down to write this post. Picking up at the fifth paragraph:

There has been a lot of chatter that “Mitt was right” – about his statements during the 2012 race regarding the ambitions of Russia and Vladimir Putin (trouble later cropped up, including Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine last spring), and his longstanding warnings that radical Muslims wanted to unite the world under a single jihadist caliphate (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria declared itself a caliphate in June 2014), and other matters.

A relaxed Romney is the subject of feature stories these days.

Meanwhile, Obama is in the headlines daily dealing with the weight of a series of crises worldwide. Obama’s job approval with Iowa’s likely 2014 voters is 39 percent, while 56 percent disapprove, the poll shows.

Wait, what? “There has been a lot of chatter that ‘Mitt was right’”–where? On conservative websites? Among people Jacobs hangs out with?

Given that Obama’s approve/disapprove numbers in that poll were 39/56, it’s hardly a sign of Romney’s strength for him to be ahead by 41 percent to 39 percent. Clearly a lot of Iowa poll respondents who didn’t care for Obama’s work were also not convinced “Mitt was right.”

Such a low approval rating for Obama among Iowans who planned to vote in the 2014 election was bad news for Democrats, absolutely. But the way Jacobs told the story conveyed the impression of widespread buyer’s remorse, a late recognition by Iowans that Romney would have been a better president. The poll numbers don’t support that frame.

Another questionable inference was prominent in an article Jacobs co-authored with Jason Noble for the first Sunday Des Moines Register after the November election, “Analysis: Grassley gains power; Clinton faces headwinds.”

If Iowa’s U.S. Senate race proved anything, it’s that ticket-splitting voters here have a predilection for candidates with a personality they relate to – which could mean a tough row for Democrat Hillary Clinton if she decides to run for president in 2016, activists said. […]

Iowa’s attraction to personality could prove difficult for Hillary Clinton if she decides to chase a victory in the Iowa caucuses in 2016.

Democratic and Republican strategists have said the 2014 U.S. Senate race hinged on likability. The lesson: The candidates who do best in Iowa are candid and relatable, yet not undisciplined, strategists said.

When it comes to the White House, especially, Iowans want to love the person before they turn over the keys. And they don’t fall for a candidate because of his or her policy statements.

Clinton would need to master the ability to express herself and talk about herself without coming off as too self-centered, they said.

Again, it’s hard to square the extensive use of unnamed sources with the Register’s stated criteria for allowing them. But I digress.

“Prove” is a strong word, which rarely applies to election interpretations. I see no supporting evidence for what Jacobs and Noble present as an obvious lesson of the Senate race. Readers are simply told to accept that 1) Iowa swing voters choose candidates on the basis of personality, and 2) that could be bad for Hillary Clinton, because she’s none too likeable. Nowhere do the authors acknowledge that a presidential election brings out hundreds of thousands of Iowans who don’t vote in midterm years.

As for Iowa’s “attraction to personality” creating problems for Clinton “if she decides to chase a victory in the Iowa caucuses in 2016,” every poll of Iowa Democrats taken during the past two years shows Clinton a prohibitive favorite to win the caucuses, with three or four times the level of support for the second-place candidate. The Register’s own Iowa poll released shortly before this story appeared didn’t support the strategists’ contention that Hillary might be too unlikeable to win Iowa in the general. Despite having “upside down” favorability ratings (47 percent favorable, 49 percent unfavorable) in that October 2014 survey, Clinton led every Republican head to head except for Romney, whom she trailed by 1 point.

As long as we’re pulling narratives out of the air, I could argue that last year’s Senate race was good news for Clinton, because it showed a woman with fairly high “very unfavorable” numbers could beat a man in a statewide Iowa election despite millions of dollars spent on ads attacking her. I don’t have a clue whether Clinton will win Iowa next November; I’m just saying there was no basis for Jacobs and Noble to state an opinion in such an emphatic way (“If Iowa’s U.S. Senate race proved anything”).

IOWA CAUCUS CAMPAIGN COVERAGE

The Register is a leading source of Iowa caucus news for politics-watchers around the country. So when key Ernst consultant David Kochel took a job with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s political operation this January, I looked forward to comparing the Register’s coverage of Bush to that of his rivals for the “establishment” Republican niche.

Early signs are not encouraging.

Bleeding Heartland discussed here the shocking degree of spin in a lengthy feature Jacobs wrote to accompany Bush’s first Iowa visit this year. To recap, Jacobs:

• gave Bush far more attention than nine other potential GOP candidates who were in the state the same weekend;

• spent most of the front-page story demolishing a narrative pushed by Bush’s Iowa critics (that he’s not conservative enough), and ran a sidebar listing Bush’s conservative achievements as governor;

• downplayed Bush’s weaknesses in the most recent Iowa poll commissioned by the Register;

• framed Bush’s record in terms that would appeal to conservatives (e.g. substituting “academic standards for student achievement” for “Common Core,” a curriculum initiative hated by many Iowa Republicans);

• included token negatives about Bush that read like positives in disguise;

• credited Bush with the resurgence of Florida’s GOP without noting that Republicans made similar gains in almost every deep South state during the same period;

• threw a few barbs at Bush’s main rivals in the likely Republican field.

Click here for details supporting those bullet points.

A follow-up piece headlined “Jeb Bush turns heads in first Iowa swing” read like an audition for a job as press secretary, full of anecdotes supporting the lede: “Jeb Bush hit Iowa hard during his first presidential trial run and upended some preconceived notions of what he’s about.”

Contrast those features with a series of articles Jacobs wrote about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, which appeared in the Register’s April 23 edition. Walker has opened up a statistically significant lead in the two most recent polls of Iowa Republicans, largely because he does well among both moderates and conservatives. Bush has no hope of winning over the most conservative caucus-goers. To do well in the caucuses, he needs to consolidate support from moderates as well as from those who prioritize nominating a candidate who can win the general election. Walker is a leading competitor among Iowa GOP voters who are concerned about electability.

The online version of the April 23 front-page story is called, “Iowans eager to see Walker, but wary of possible shifts.” The headline looked worse in the print version: “Iowans wary: Is Walker shifting stances?” with the subhead, “Conservatives eager to see him, but view possible issue changes as ‘a concern.’” That is, the subhead reinforced the damaging narrative about Walker, in contrast to the subhead to the Bush profile, which undercut the damaging narrative about him.

Most of the article focused on “a wave of scrutiny about whether he [Walker] changed his mind on a series of issues – ethanol mandates, immigration, common core academic standards, same-sex marriage and others.” While several Iowa Republicans said they are keeping an open mind, no one vigorously defended Walker against the flip-flopper charge the way Florida sources cited in the Bush feature insisted that he is a true conservative.  

A companion piece on Walker covered “Then and now, what he said on five issues” (online version titled, “Scott Walker’s statements, then and now”). Even without reading the sidebar, the message is clear: Walker has changed his stance on several issues. First up, immigration:

THEN: Walker signed a resolution in 2006 calling on Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have given illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, Politico reported. In 2013, he still favored what conservatives refer to as amnesty.

NOW: In March, Walker said on Fox News: “My view has changed. I’m flat out saying it.” And Walker has taken a step further, talking in an interview Monday with conservative host Glenn Beck about limiting lawful immigration, too.

Bush supports a path to legal status for some undocumented immigrants even today–but the words “comprehensive immigration reform,” “pathway to citizenship,” and “amnesty” were absent from Jacobs’ feature on the former Florida governor.

To sum up, the sidebar to the Walker story read like a list of talking points critics would release to support the damaging narrative (the candidate shifts with political winds on important issues).

In contrast, the sidebar to the Bush story on his record as governor read like a list of talking points campaign strategists would release to counter the damaging narrative (the candidate is not conservative enough).

A third piece on Walker in the Register’s April 23 edition made the Wisconsin governor out to be either a hypocrite or a liar by omission. Here’s the lede from “Some in Iowa question Scott Walker’s Kohl’s story”:

Republican Scott Walker uses anecdotes about discount shopping at Kohl’s to illustrate his frugality, but doesn’t bring up the multimillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy he helped channel to the Wisconsin-based retailer in 2012.

It’s an apparent contradiction that doesn’t sit well with some likely GOP caucusgoers in Iowa.

The headline from the print version made Walker sound worse: “Key aspects missing in Walker’s comments on Kohl’s,” above the subhead, “Some say he should have mentioned subsidy he helped channel to retailer.” Although I dislike state government subsidies to profitable companies, I’m not seeing the connection as clearly as Jacobs does. Many Republican and Democratic governors steer tax incentives to large corporations in exchange for promises to create jobs. As far as I can tell, the “some say” applies to just two likely caucus-goers Jacobs quoted; a third source wasn’t bothered by Walker’s actions.

Am I reading too much into the skeptical coverage of Walker? Maybe, but it’s a natural reflex after the way Jacobs jumped on and distorted comments by Liz Mair, a briefly-employed Walker campaign consultant who had offended some Iowa Republicans. Bleeding Heartland discussed that episode in the second half of this post.

The likely Democratic nominee will apparently have to contend with some hostile framing too. The Register’s politics team provided extensive coverage of Hillary Clinton’s first visit to Iowa as a presidential candidate last month. After Clinton had left the state, Jacobs filed a chatty piece headlined, “Keeping score? A rundown of Clinton mini flaps in Iowa.” Check out how she shifted from a lede about a mostly-smooth trip to a nut graph validating a Republican perspective:

The consensus among Iowa political activists was that Hillary Clinton, one of the most recognizable and most carefully scrutinized people in the world, committed no major gaffes during her first campaign outing of 2016.

But there was a series of mini flaps, many that fed into a GOP-pushed narrative that claims she’s an out-of-touch elitist, and that she can’t be trusted to tell the truth.

First Jacobs linked to a piece from the conservative British tabloid Daily Mail, which assailed Clinton’s “astroturf candidacy.” Jacobs added helpfully, “It was the lead story on the Drudge Report for part of Wednesday.”

I don’t recall the Register ever mentioning criticism of a GOP candidate being front-paged at high-traffic liberal websites like Daily Kos, Salon.com, or Talking Points Memo.

Anyway, is it really news that a hit piece on Hillary got major play on the Drudge Report? Wasn’t that entire website the brainchild of 1990s “Clinton Derangement Syndrome”? Drudge has linked to Bleeding Heartland exactly once in this blog’s eight-year existence–to a post containing a long list of negative statements about Hillary Clinton.

Jacobs moved on: “There was the hedge fund manager thing.”

Clinton said at her Monticello event: “There’s something wrong when hedge fund managers pay lower tax rates than nurses or the truckers that I saw on I-80 as I was driving here over the last two days.”

Breitbart.com pointed out that her son-in-law, Mark Mezvinsky, is a hedge fund manager. Breitbart called her remarks part of “the theme of ‘fake and phony’ populism by Clinton.”

Since when does the Register’s chief politics reporter double as stenographer for a right-wing website? Jacobs didn’t publish any rebuttal from the Clinton campaign. Nor did she explain why it is “fake and phony” for Clinton to support closing loopholes that keep some well-off people like her son-in-law from paying the same tax rate most Americans pay on earned income. “Fake and phony” would be trying to protect one’s own relatives from a tax applied to others in similar circumstances.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I considered writing a post along these lines after the November election. A combination of fear and fatalism held me back. Fear that the piece would come across as sour grapes or a personal attack, and a sense that nothing would change while Rick Green was the Register’s publisher. Gannett made everyone in the Register’s news division re-apply for their jobs last fall. Jacobs was able to keep one of the most prestigious jobs in Iowa journalism.

I’m not looking for a scapegoat after a lousy midterm. I was here when Iowa Democrats were annihilated up and down the ballot in 1994 and 2010. Landslides happen.

I’m not accusing Jacobs of deliberately using her position to promote Republican candidates or viewpoints. Bias can be unintentional.

I wouldn’t waste time writing this piece if I didn’t believe all Iowans–not just those who read the Register–need this newspaper to function well.

Even though David Chivers doesn’t come from a journalism background, I am hopeful a new publisher will recognize that appearing to favor one presidential contender over others during the Iowa caucus campaign would be terrible for the newspaper’s brand.

At a minimum, Register reporters should not send full drafts of stories to some subjects (or their paid representatives) for comment before publication.

Reporters should strive for consistency in framing the issues, so if one candidate is said to support Common Core and giving “illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship,” other candidates holding the same positions should not be described more delicately as backing “academic standards for student achievement” or “disinterested in deporting every immigrant living in the country illegally.”

Although online impressions are an important part of the Register’s revenue stream, reporters should not jump at every clickbait opportunity to make candidates look bad by association with remarks considered offensive to Iowans.

To anyone at the Register who read this post, thanks for hearing me out, even though I recently exited the age group designated as the “overall focus” of the newspaper’s output.

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  • Are you a mind reader?

    I agree with everything you said.  Thank you for this post.

  • "Not for Attribution" Policy by the Register

    It is amazing how the “Not For Attribution” policy is applied. You correctly cite the “informed observer” loophole used by Jennifer Jacobs in the 2014 election coverage that is outside the policy. At the same time that an unwritten policy loophole has been carved out by Jennifer Jacobs, the Des Moines Register has refused to interview veterans that were part of a group eviction from the Iowa Veterans Home. There is a federal guideline that the Iowa Veterans Home do a follow-up on these veterans one year after release. We can find no evidence that this has been done.  

    However, on the grounds that the individuals involved have requested confidentiality, the Register has refused to conduct an interview. This is even though within the group of evicted vets, there have been at least 2, possibly 3 suicides. The veterans involved generally have severe PTSD and/or mental illness and are at the very margins of society. Public exposure in their marginal universe can mean landlord problems, family and employer problems and other problems. And, since a symptom of PTSD is reclusiveness, it can be nearly impossible to get these people to give witness openly. The public disclosure of their identities is not a breath of fresh air in public debate. Rather, it may be a kiss of death. Too bad, because they are most certainly “informed observers.”

    • if you would be interested in writing more

      about that story, it would make a good topic for a guest post. I had no idea any of that was happening.

      I can understand why veterans in that situation would want to speak to the media confidentially.

  • Good post

    I always wondered what would happen if editors were taken out of the equation. Now, we know, and it’s not good.

  • What Liberal Register?

    You are starting to remind me of Eric Alterman.  You have written well and in detail.  They should listen up!

  • Don't forget

    How long it took them to post anything about the drunk driving problems of Ernst’s campaign aide last fall, too.  A good newspaper wouldn’t have waited so long, for whatever reason.

    There are a lot of state government stories I often find first covered in other newspapers around the state.  That didn’t use to be the case. It makes me more than a little sad.

    Good piece.

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