Missouri gets high marks for political coverage

As an avid consumer of Missouri political campaign coverage for 40 years, let me be among the first to declare that it has never been better than it was in 2010:  more content, additional outlets, sophisticated analysis.

Despite depleted resources, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch deployed two skilled reporters (Tony Messenger and Jake Wagman) fulltime and drew upon veteran statehouse correspondent Virginia Young.  Meanwhile Jo Mannies, the grand dame of Missouri’s political journalism, took full advantage of her new on-line outlet, the St. Louis Beacon, to file more than 100 timely stories in September and October.

Thanks to John Combest, a St. Louis public relations executive who rises before dawn each day to create a set of hot links to print and electronic stories about Missouri politics (www.johncombest.com), there is one-click access to skilled reporters across the state.   Most notable are Terry Ganey (St. Louis Beacon), Stan Kraske (Kansas City Star), David Leip (Associated Press), and Jason Rosenbaum (former Columbia Daily Tribune and now a free lancer). In addition, the blogosphere is well represented with the Post Dispatch’s Political Fix, the Star’s Prime Buzz, and partisan outlets like Fired Up Missouri (Democrat) and The Source (Republican).

Overall, the coverage retains the patterns of the past three decades:  much more on standings (e.g., who’s ahead?) and strategy (e.g., why are they running that ad?) than policies (e.g., how the candidate proposes to fix the economy). But in an increasingly politically polarized environment, the news consumer is more than ever a partisan, wanting insights into the race (,) rather than the mythical independent citizen, eager to know where the candidates stand on the issues. Major newspapers do the conventional issue comparison as a major one-shot story or a short series, but (,) for the most part (,) their stories are all about the contest.

With the advantage of hindsight, there were narratives that deserved more attention. Perhaps the most overlooked in pre-election coverage was the rise and ultimate dominance of the Tea Party in Jefferson County in local, state and national contests.  Jefferson County had passed a home rule charter in 2008 and was electing its first county executive and county council.  The Republican candidates, all with Tea Party support, nearly swept the board winning the executive race along with the six of seven council seats that were contested. Tea Party Republicans toppled three incumbent state representatives (Michael Frame, Sam Komo, Jeff Roorda) and almost were the key in electing Ed Martin to Congress.  In 2008, incumbent Democrat Russ Carnahan received 63 percent of the two-party vote in Jefferson County while, in 2010, he only garnered 39 percent.

In the judicial retention elections, the Missouri Bar Association’s review based upon both lawyer and juror surveys recommended a vote in St. Louis County against Associate Circuit Judge Judy Draper. This fact was briefly mentioned by some outlets but was never fully developed. What caused Judge Draper to have such low rankings? Would at long last the electorate vote not to retain a sitting judge?  What are the implications for the larger debate about the judicial selection process in Missouri from the fact that Judge Draper survived?

Finally, Missouri journalists appear reluctant to use fully the growing amount of information about state and local races available from national sources. One example is Nate Silver, the wunderkind whose www.fivethirtyeight.com site rose to prominence in the 2008 elections and, as of August 2010, is part of the New York Times on-line outlet. It utilizes a sophisticated quantitative model to provide day-by-day estimates for each race, including the U.S. Senate and House contests in Missouri. Rarely were these numbers incorporated into local coverage.