July 30, 2008

The practice of jumping between the political and media worlds is not especially uncommon, and journalists routinely leave news outlets to pursue opportunities in professional politics. David Axelrod, the Obama campaign’s chief strategist, used to be a reporter. Linda Douglass, up until recently employed by National Journal, also joined Obama’s team. In perhaps the most well-known example, Tony Snow left a media job to join Bush’s White House, and then went back to the media.

That said, this is slightly more troubling than most.

Before Ron Fournier returned to The Associated Press in March 2007, the veteran political reporter had another professional suitor: John McCain’s presidential campaign.

In October 2006, the McCain team approached Fournier about joining the fledgling operation, according to a source with knowledge of the talks. In the months that followed, said a source, Fournier spoke about the job possibility with members of McCain’s inner circle, including political aides Mark Salter, John Weaver and Rick Davis.

Salter, who remains a top McCain adviser, said in an e-mail to Politico that Fournier was considered for “a senior advisory role” in communications.

“He did us the courtesy of considering the offer before politely declining it,” Salter said.

That Fournier would consider a role with the McCain campaign is not especially surprising; his political leanings have been increasingly apparent of late. We learned two weeks ago that Fournier exchanged emails with Karl Rove about Pat Tillman, in which Fournier wrote, “The Lord creates men and women like this all over the world. But only the great and free countries allow them to flourish. Keep up the fight.” Fournier was also one of the journalists who, at a gathering of the nation’s newspaper editors, extended John McCain a box of his favorite donuts (”Oh, yes, with sprinkles!” McCain said).

But Fournier is the DC bureau chief of the Associated Press. He’s chiefly responsible for directing the AP’s coverage of the presidential campaign. And yet, Fournier’s objectivity is hardly above reproach — he considered an offer to work for one of the two candidates.

I’ve been highlighting some of the unusually bad coverage of the presidential campaign from the AP. It’s been striking, in part because it’s unexpected — the AP has not exactly earned a reputation of being the Fox News of wire services. For the AP to do so many poor reports in such a short time made it seem as if the outlet had undergone some kind of deliberate shift, orchestrated by Fournier.

Earlier this month, we learned that Fournier is executing a kind of experiment in campaign reporting.

Fournier is a main engine in a high-stakes experiment at the 162-year old wire to move from its signature neutral and detached tone to an aggressive, plain-spoken style of writing that Fournier often describes as “cutting through the clutter.”

The idea sounds like it has merit, but there’s a problem in the execution.

In March, for example, Fournier wrote an item — whether it was a news article or an opinion piece was unclear — that said Barack Obama is “bordering on arrogance,” “a bit too cocky,” and that the senator and his wife “ooze a sense of entitlement.” To substantiate the criticism, Fournier pointed to … not a whole lot. It was basically the Republicans’ “uppity” talking point in the form of an AP article.

But the AP’s coverage has deteriorated since — and it goes beyond just the AP giving John McCain donuts and McCain giving the AP barbecue. There was the slam-job on Obama that read like an RNC oppo dump, followed by a scathing, 900-word reprimand of Obama’s decision to bypass the public financing system in the general election, filled with errors of fact and judgment.

When Obama unveiled his faith-based plan, the AP got the story backwards. When Obama talked about his Iraq policy on July 3, the AP said he’d “opened the door” to reversing course, even though he hadn’t.

The AP’s David Espo wrote a hagiographic, 1,200-word piece, praising McCain’s “singular brand of combative bipartisanship,” which was utterly ridiculous.

The AP pushed the objectivity envelope a little further with a mind-numbing, 1,100-word piece on Obama “being shadowed by giant flip-flops.”

The AP flubbed the story on McCain joking about killing Iranians, and then flubbed the story about McCain’s promise to eliminate the deficit. It’s part of a very discouraging trend for the AP that’s been ongoing for a while now.

And then, as these examples pile up, we learn that the journalist responsible for directing the AP’s coverage of the presidential campaign considered joining one of the candidate’s campaign teams.

Did it not occur to the Associated Press that this might raise questions about the objectivity of the wire service’s coverage?

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