The Des Moines Register made it official this week: Brianne Pfannenstiel will move up to the chief politics reporter job after three years covering the statehouse. She is best-known for writing about alleged sexual misconduct by State Senator Nate Boulton; that article quickly ended his campaign for governor. It was a tricky story to report, and Pfannenstiel handled the material well. Another huge scoop was her June 2017 investigative report on delayed state tax refunds.
Pfannenstiel impressed me during her first year at the Register, when she had the news sense to write multiple pieces about the most under-covered major Iowa politics story of 2015. Some experienced statehouse reporters failed to recognize the significance of an unprecedented move to enact a new sales tax break without legislative approval. That policy change turned out to be far more costly than officials had projected, contributing to state revenue shortfalls in subsequent years.
I’m looking forward to watching Pfannenstiel apply her detail-oriented approach to her new beat. As she turns her attention to campaigns and elections, I hope she will:
Not be afraid to assess competing claims or expose falsehoods.
The safest way to cover a political story is to fall back on a he said/she said frame: write what Democrats say and what Republicans say about [issue/controversy of the day], letting readers draw their own conclusions. Former New York Times national economics correspondent Peter Goodman has lamented that “old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what’s going on.” He found himself almost “laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.”
Media critic Jay Rosen has characterized a certain reporting style as “The View from Nowhere”:
In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.
Pfannenstiel’s not a political columnist and should not express partisan preferences about candidates or policies. But she should feel empowered to speak with authority when facts belie one side’s rhetoric. She has done so before: last year, she and colleague Kevin Hardy found that data did not support Republican assertions about an “unsustainable” workers’ compensation system.
Although the Des Moines Register no longer has a dedicated “Reality Check reporter,” Pfannenstiel will have many opportunities to correct the record when Iowa candidates or outside groups seeking to influence our elections make unsubstantiated claims.
Follow up when warranted.
The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously said that if you put a rifle on the wall in the first act, the gun must be fired before the end.
Pfannenstiel will write about a lot of big promises by candidates and elected officials. Holding those politicians accountable will require some digging later. Did the winners act on their campaign pledges? Did they at least make a good faith effort? If not, why not? I’m encouraged by past work demonstrating Pfannenstiel doesn’t blindly accept the official explanation.
On a related note, should the new chief politics reporter ever feel inclined to run a full-length story about a public records request, she should commit to covering what’s in the records after their release.
Be sparing with stories anchored in a press release, conference call, or staged event.
While some political announcements are newsworthy, many are just vehicles for partisans to drive the media’s framing or story selection. For example, a campaign launch is notable if the candidate hadn’t previously confirmed plans to seek the office. But a written statement from someone who has actively campaigned for months is not news.
Ever since the Register closed its Washington bureau, Iowans have been less informed about what our members of Congress are doing. We hear little about important votes in the U.S. House or Senate and even less about how our representatives manage their work on committees. Pfannenstiel can’t fix that problem from her base in Des Moines, but she can decline to write the stories self-interested politicians put in front of her. She doesn’t have to take the bait every time someone highlights a popular-sounding idea in a press release or a conference call. A lawmaker introducing a bill that obviously will go nowhere is not news.
Finally, Pfannenstiel is destined to cover innumerable photo ops, but I hope she doesn’t have to spend too much of the general election campaign that way. I’d rather read her political analysis than a summary of a predictable event. A small business owner praising a visiting politician is not news.
P.S.–Congratulations are also in order for Courtney Crowder, who will be the Des Moines Register’s fifth (and first female) Iowa columnist. Anyone familiar with last year’s Trans in Iowa series knows she is an excellent storyteller.
P.P.S.–The latest hirings add to the ranks of women holding influential jobs at Iowa’s largest newspaper, including executive editor Carol Hunter, opinion editor Kathie Obradovich, politics editor Rachel Stassen-Berger, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer Andie Dominick, and opinion columnist Rekha Basu. The Register has not yet hired a new political columnist to replace Obradovich and is just launching the search for Pfannenstiel’s successor as a statehouse reporter.
JUNE 15 UPDATE: The Register is seeking both a statehouse reporter to replace Pfannenstiel and a reporter “to assist in covering Iowa policy and politics.” The second opening is a new job, Stassen-Berger told me. That’s a good sign: the paper did not fill Jason Noble’s position when he moved into the chief politics reporter role in 2016. For those seeking Pfannenstiel’s old job, “a bachelor’s degree and three years of professional journalism experience” is required, with past statehouse reporting preferred. The other position requires “a bachelor’s degree and one year of professional journalism experience or substantial news internship experience,” preferably with some “Previous politics and digital journalism experience.”
According to Crowder, “They aren’t directly replacing me. I’ll take portions of my job with me (social issues are still a passion) and other parts will be redistributed.”
AUGUST UPDATE: The Register recruited Barbara Rodriguez as its new statehouse reporter–a great hire, since she regularly broke news on the same beat for the Associated Press during the last several years.