Lies, Spin and the Importance of Local Reporting

Since we’ve been talking a lot lately about lies and spin, and the fine line that separates them, I’d draw attention to a Ten Miles Square post from Maine political reporter Colin Woodward about WaPo conservative opinion writer Marc Thiessen’s recent effort to give a lift to the GOP’s left-for-dead hopes for hanging onto Olympia Snowe’s Senate seat:

GOP nominee Charlie Summers, Maine’s Secretary of State, is showing signs of life, Thiessen claimed, gaining rapidly in the polls thanks to a negative advertising blitz by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Intriguing stuff, seeing as most political observers – and the Democratic Party – have pretty much written off the race to independent Angus King, a popular two-term governor who led Summers by 28 percent in the last independent poll (and Democrat Cynthia Dill by a staggering 48 percent). What, pray tell, was Thiessen basing this claim upon?

Not much, it turns out….

As my colleague, John Richardson noted, “the Summers campaign is re-spinning its own poll, sending out fundraising letters and press releases that cite poll numbers published by various news organizations. The campaign also doesn’t mention that the numbers are from its poll.”

Thiessen correctly notes that “Maine is a cheap state in which to run” as it took “just $400,000 to saturate the airwaves on every network in the state during the Olympic Games,” but it’s not at all clear if that campaign had the desired effect. The U.S. Chamber’s Maine affiliates are backtracking away from the ad campaign, knowing Mainers have a relatively low threshold of tolerance for negative advertising. In the 2010 gubernatorial race, a negative ad against another independent candidate, Eliot Cutler, backfired on the Democrats….

Does Summers have a chance at taking the seat? Maybe, but there’s no firm evidence of that just yet.

The bigger point here is that it’s easy for somewhat writing for a national “newspaper of record” like WaPo to make breezy statements about political developments in a place like Maine that may simply be spin for The Team. Thiessen did not tell any lies, but in a zero-information context like the one he was writing about, saying much of anything with a degree of confidence can be very misleading. It serves as a reminder that when you read about a state race in a national publication, you ought to make a habit of checking with local media sources to see if it’s right. On occasion, you may discover a depressing lack of same (on more than one occasion, I’ve struggled to find reporting on a state primary the very day before it occurs, even after searching for blogs). In Maine, however, it’s good to know someone like Woodward is on task.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.