If you follow the news in the Denver Post, you're not following Senate candidate Jane Norton very much.
Well, I take that back. You're actually following Norton in the Post via her spokespeople and news releases--not through words that come out of her mouth in response to questions by journalists.
She's been quoted directly (words from mouth) in just four articles in the Post since she launched her campaign over five months ago.
Instead of talking to reporters, Norton is giving them spokespeople, written statements, and news releases, which were used in 10 additional articles.
Since Norton's campaign announcement Sept. 15, ten of 14 articles in the print edition of the Post, plus an additional half dozen posts on the Post's political blog The Spot, relied on this type of controlled information for quotes.
While the Post published only 14 articles with any type of statement (direct quote, spokesperson, or news release) connected to Norton, it ran a total of 22 with Bennet statements and 18 with Romanoff statements. (Bennet has been quoted directly in an additional 20 articles about his Senate activities.) Bennet and Romanoff were each quoted directly (words from mouth to reporter) in 11 print articles.
So it looks like the Post is giving Norton a free ride, not asking her enough questions directly, printing her news releases, her spokespeople's statements, and generally covering her less than the other candidates in the race.
Of course, this runs counter to what we expect from journalists--to provide citizens with the information they need to make informed decisions about candidates and policy matters. To do this effectively, reporters should try hard to interview candidates directly and ask questions.
Staff at the Post was busy or on other assignments yesterday and this morning--and unable to comment on my analysis of their coverage of Colorado's Senate race.
Now, you may be thinking, perhaps Norton is just going through a dry spell in terms of newsworthiness--and reporters don't need to be wasting time talking directly to her.
But no, during those five months, she's made a string of unusual and newsworthy statements that definitely merit investigation by Post reporters:
• This month, the Ft. Morgan Times reported that Norton supports a "national sales tax" and a "flat tax," and she thinks a "simplified flat tax with exemptions only for mortgages and charity" might be viable (Ft. Morgan Times 2/9/10). The Post did not address this statement about radical restructuring of the U.S. tax code on its news pages, though Mike Littwin included it in a column (2/19/2010).
• Norton stated that the federal government has no role in health care, presumably including Medicare and Medicaid. The Denver Post's politics and policy bog, The Spot, reported (1/13/2010) that Norton made this comment, and a statement by Norton was posted stating that she wants to protect Medicare. But the candidate did not answer questions about it directly. Also, the Post has not questioned Norton on her apparent statement that health care reform is not constitutional.
• Norton apparently listened to supporters say President Obama is a Muslim, without making any effort to correct them. And she stated that the "rights of terrorists are more important in this administration than the lives of American citizens." This statement never appeared on the news pages of the Post, but, once again, was included in a Mike Littwin column (1/10/2010).
• Norton reportedly stated that she favors abolishing the Department of Education. To its credit, the Post (12/20/2009) tried to obtain a response from Norton on this topic, but her campaign declined comment. There's been no follow-up in the newspaper.
• During a Colorado Springs radio interview (KVOR 740 AM) on 1/26/2010, she stated, "On the lobbyist thing, I've never been a lobbyist." The Post didn't pursue this issue, but the Rocky Mountain News identified Norton as a lobbyist years ago in an article (3/4/2001), reporting that Norton "worked previously as a medical lobbyist." Her lobbying history has been reported elsewhere as well. And she declined to talk to a Post reporter for a story about her ties to high-powered Washington lobbyists.
(Note to Post readers: Who would think that opinion columnist Mike Littwin would scoop the Post's entire news department twice in about six months! He's offering up important news about Jane Norton that you find nowhere else in the Post. Maybe he should try interviewing Norton himself.)
What's a Post reporter to do about this? Here are my suggestions:
First, the most obvious one is that reporters should seek comments directly from Norton more often. The public interest isn't served by repeatedly quoting spokespeople and written statements. We rely on journalists to ask candidates tough or uncomfortable questions, with follow-up queries, if needed. If Norton or her spokespeople refuse comment, the Post should inform readers of this, as the Post did on one occasion.
The Post should offer coverage of different perspectives on why Norton doesn't want to talk to Post reporters, if reporters think she's avoiding them. Let's hear from experts about her strategy. At her last major news conference, for example, she answered only one question before departing, and at the last Republican forum on Feb. 21, where you'd certainly expect to find journalists, she didn't show up at all.
If necessary, the Post should track Norton at campaign appearances and confront her in person with questions.
I understand that reporters are busy doing seventeen things at once, but quality coverage of Colorado's U.S. Senate race is a big priority.
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