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Washington Post and DC’s likely next mayor: Asleep at the switch

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April 1, 2014: D.C. mayoral candidate and council member Muriel Bowser watches returns at her election night watch party in Washington. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

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In defense of Jeff Zucker

Washington Post and DC’s likely next mayor: Asleep at the switch

The Washington Post editorial page has most likely made Muriel Bowser the next mayor of the District of Columbia.

Unfortunately, the Washington Post news pages failed to tell us very much about her.

There are larger lessons here — about political coverage and the role of newspapers -- even if you don’t care about this city’s elections.

Bowser is a little-known City Council member who ousted scandal-scarred Mayor Vincent Gray in Tuesday’s Democratic primary — usually a sure ticket to election in the heavily Democratic capital. She won largely because the Post endorsed her on March 16.

But in the final two weeks, the paper never ran a full-scale examination of her record. It is inconceivable to me that a surging newcomer in Chicago, Boston or New York could skate into high office with so little media scrutiny.

Then again, newspapers have fewer troops than they used to, and are increasingly focused on generating clicks online. And a majority of the Post’s readers live in the suburbs.

Bowser could turn out to be a fine mayor. I don’t know that much about her; unfortunately, neither do most voters who rely on the local media.

The initial problem was that Bowser was but one contender in a multi-candidate field. The focus was on Gray, especially after federal prosecutors said he knew about illicit fundraising in his 2010 campaign that has led to a spate of criminal charges. So it was hardly impossible that the one-term mayor would be knocked off.

But this points out a problem that plagues national political journalism as well: a near-slavish devotion to polls. Also-rans get brushed off until. It happened in the Iowa caucuses with Mike Huckabee in 2008, and with Rick Santorum in 2012.

The stagnant D.C. situation abruptly changed with the Post’s endorsement: “Ms. Bowser promises a fresh start if elected. She brings seven years of solid service on the D.C. Council, preceded by government work in Montgomery County. She is committed to good government, as evidenced by how she persuaded the council to adopt the legislative reforms that created the city’s board of ethics.” 

I instantly knew that Bowser would get a huge boost. A Post endorsement essentially put Marion Barry into office (this was pre-crack bust, of course), and the paper did the same for Sharon Pratt Kelly, also a reform-minded woman, whose tenure was a colossal failure.

On Mar. 23, the Post ran a nicely written profile of Bowser that at least conveyed some sense of her personality:

“Her transition to primary alternative has been lightning-fast. In a few weeks, her bureaucratic and jargon-filled speaking style has yielded to a feisty, sometimes startlingly frank manner. But she still bats down questions of the sort that most politicians answer with ease. ‘What do people want to know about me?’ she asked. ‘What do they need to know?’

“She is a striking presence, the only woman among the major candidates, tall, with piercing obsidian eyes and an unusually expressive face. Where other politicians paste on a permanent, unrevealing smile, Bowser is an ever-shifting portrait of surprise, disgust, delight, anger and exasperation.”

But the piece was not designed to examine her legislative record.

Two days later came the poll that had Bowser leading Gray:

“A once unruly mayoral primary race in the District has narrowed into a two-person contest between incumbent Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser, who are in a dead heat for the Democratic nomination, according to a Washington Post poll.”

But rather than a crash course on Bowser’s record (except for a blog post by education writer Valerie Strauss asking why Bowser hadn’t taken a clear stand on the city’s schools), the paper served up the usual fare about last-minute campaigning and debates. Such as: “Muriel Bowser’s mayoral campaign is building steam in the final days before the Democratic primary, gathering tens of thousands of dollars in donations to supplement its get-out-the-vote war chest.”

Wednesday, once the election results were in, the paper posted another profile, using a days-old interview with the candidate while also talking to her friends and family about her life as a single woman:

“Her reticence and her emotional distance are qualities that might have been a liability at times during the campaign, but her straightforward, drama-free approach to getting things done could be an asset in a city that prizes accomplishment.”

Great, but Democratic voters had already made their decision.

Bowser still has to beat independent candidate David Catania, an at-large councilman, in November. But the District has never elected a white mayor, not to mention a former Republican, and if history is any guide, a Democratic victory is tantamount to election. Still, at least there’s time for the local media to tell us more about the woman who will likely run the city for the next four years.

In defense of Jeff Zucker

Since I’ve been pretty hard on CNN’s nearly nonstop missing-plane coverage, here is a dissenting view.

Henry Blodget, who runs Business Insider, says CNN President Jeff Zucker is the right man in the right place:

“CNN's ratings have gone to the moon since Zucker decreed that the network cover nothing but "The Mystery Of Flight 370."

“CNN has apparently surmised — almost certainly correctly — that the plane story is much more interesting, mysterious, and terrifying to viewers than just about any other dime-a-dozen story CNN could be covering.

“Given the ratings boost CNN is enjoying, the wall-to-wall plane coverage now seems like a no-brainer. But to dismiss it as such is to ignore the catcalls and scoffing Mr. Zucker and his network have been subjected to by the Twitter-based media elite in the weeks since the network became The Plane Channel.

“The media snobs on Twitter hate CNN's plane coverage. They hate it as much as they hated ‘The DaVinci Code,’ ‘The Firm,’ ‘Iron Man,’ and other massively popular commercial successes that normal people love. They love to tweet about how appalled they are, and how embarrassing CNN's plane obsession is.

“But their snootiness only goes to show, again, that Mr. Zucker is exactly what CNN needed: A boss who knows what normal CNN viewers want — and the boldness to withstand the critics and give it to them.”

I’d simply note that good journalism is often more than simply giving viewers the most popular stories. 

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz. 

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