THE BLOG
05/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Does a $487 Visit to an "Appearance Coach" Matter?

The Scott McInnis Colorado gubernatorial campaign forks out $487 to an "appearance coach," who reportedly advises McInnis to shave off his mustache and update his glasses, and it barely makes a blip in the news.

Is this a sign of good journalism or cynical passivity on behalf of the Colorado media?

When the appearance coach story broke last month, I first thought it was the former--a sign that maybe journalists were moving away from blowing up meaningless symbols into eyeball-grabbing news stories.

But now I'm thinking Colorado journalists let us down on this one.

I definitely thought it would be big local news when I first heard about it. Look what it had going for it, in terms of newsworthiness:

First, the expenditure was clearly listed on McInnis' campaign finance reports.

It was also high on the infotainment index--involving hair, something we can all relate to. McInnis' appearance coach was Denver native Patti Shyne, whose company name, "You've Been Shyned," could have been invented in Hollywood. Her homepage states, "Within the realm of physical presentation, Patti understands the delicate symbiosis between vulnerability and confidence."

McInnis' visit to "You've Been Shyned" was paid for by the McInnis campaign, not by McInnis' personal funds, so there's a public-interest benefit, for potential McInnis donors, in reporting where McInnis is spending campaign donations, especially if expenditures seem unusual or unnecessary.

And, of course, journalists are paid to present clues about the authenticity of political candidates and their judgment on money matters. Strange or exorbitant campaign expenditures could foreshadow crazy spending of tax money.

But despite these newsworthy elements, there weren't any news stories about McInnis' visit to You've Been Shyned--or at least almost none that took the Patti Shyne issue seriously. Even local TV news largely snoozed through this made-for-TV story.

The more I've thought about this story, the more I'm convinced it should have been taken seriously by journalists, with different views presented.

And McInnis himself should have been asked about it.

The Denver Post didn't run anything in its print edition, choosing to post a piece on its blog, The Spot. While informative, this light-hearted post didn't get at the authenticity or judgment issues involved. Emblematic of the approach was the Post's query of Shyne regarding what advice she'd give to McInnis' opponent John Hickenlooper. (She said Hick's haircut and clothes still need help.) Later, the Spot ran a piece about ProgressNow's lampoon of the McInnis' mini-makeover, which the liberal group called the "McLobbyist Makeover." (The Post ran a short story about McInnis' mustache removal in January before the news of his $487 excursion to Shyne leaked out in February.)

The news void about McInnis' $487 trip to the appearance coach contrasts with the avalanche of coverage Presidential candidate John Edwards endured in 2007, when he got not one but two $400 haircuts. Major media outlets across the country weighed in. As one story in the Washington Post put it in a story about Edwards, testifying to the public's sensitivity to these issues, "the political damage was immediate."

I know, Edwards was a presidential candidate whose hair was a lightning rod, and McInnis is a Colorado candidate with less of it, but still, his mustache had already made news and the public-interest issues involved are the same.

Post columnist Fred Brown, who's written extensively on media issues, told me he thought the Postmade the right news decision to place the story on its blog. "This is the perfect kind of thing to report in the new media, and maybe old media are moving away from it," he told me. "It's campaign trivia, sort of insider news, more than big picture stuff--although lord knows there's plenty of crap that ends up in the mainstream media."

Like Brown, Jennifer Duffy, political editor at the Cook Political Report, says that candidates work with appearance coaches all the time--so there's not much new here.

Advice from an appearance coach doesn't normally show up as a specific line item on a public campaign expense report, Duffy said, so we usually don't know for sure how much is paid for this campaign activity.

"Usually, it's passed to one of your consultants," she said. "And then you and I aren't having this conversation."

To my way of thinking, that's all the more reason Denver reporters should have jumped all over the McInnis-Shyne story, even if the dollars involved are small by campaign standards.
It's the kind of activity that many candidates don't want the public to see, and when it trickles out, candidates should be held accountable.

So when evidence crosses a reporter's desk that a candidate spent $487 on an appearance coach, journalists shouldn't get lost in their cynicism and accept it as part of normal campaigning.

I mean, maybe this is actually something that distinguishes Hick from McInnis, and voters want to know about the judgment and priorities reflected in this small, but certainly significant, decision. In other words, reporters have no business assuming that all candidates do this, just because most candidates apparently do.

Journalists should also look at the situation from the perspective of your average citizen. Do they understand the world where paying $487 for an appearance coach is, according to Duffy, not a bad price? I don't think so, and it's up to reporters to illuminate this world.

It's not too late for a reporter to ask Scott McInnis about his trip to see Patti Shyne.