Friday, May 30, 2008

Swampland Hijinks: Michael Scherer Edition

"In the Democratic presidential pack, the leading man is a woman and the leading woman is a man."
"May the best woman win."

Scherer's Reporting History

Scherer joined TIME and Swampland after a stint at Most of his pieces there were fluff, jello-journalism stories with multi-paragraph feature-style ledes or failed attempts at humor. His credibility at Salon was destroyed after a fawning profile of "citizen journalist" Meghan McCain (I laughed typing that and again editing it) and a piece on the Democratic primaries with the sub-head and final line quoted above -- quips that are not only insulting but incoherent and contradictory.

TIME's Clever Response to Reader Criticism

In early spring Scherer and Ana Marie Cox were under scrutiny. Cox was writing favorably about McCain while vacationing at his ranch while Scherer was doing his usual Scherer thing. So Cox had a brilliant idea: trot out the old "think you can do better? Well let's see you try!" gambit.

I didn't try asking about anything else "serious." Those of you who think the press fell down on the job in not using that time to query him [McCain], well... the guy holds about five hours of press conferences a day when he's on the trail. A lot of questions get asked.
Maybe we missed the ones you want asked; in which case you should keep agitating the people who have the access and responsibility to ask questions on behalf of the public...

The genius here was that Cox was being taken off the McCain beat and could thus plausibly ignore the agitations. A few weeks later, however, Scherer repeated the gambit:

Here is an experiment. Tell me here what questions you would ask McCain that are not otherwise being asked.

You Can Guess Where This is Going

Here are some of the questions commenters posed:

Could you briefly explain, as you understand it, Iran's influence in Iraq, specifically with regard to the recent conflict between the Sadrists and the Maliki government?

Please explain your attitude toward the United Nations and describe how the "League of Democracies" would support or undermine the UN.

What would you do if a pluarality of Iraqi representatives voted to insist the US get out of Iraq within a certain deadline?

As a dedicated proponent of campaign finance reform and a candidate who would like both sides to take matching funds in the general election, how do you justify your efforts to get out of the restrictions on primary spending?

A few months ago you said you didn't know much about economic policy but that were going to read Greenspan's book. Have you read Greenspan's book yet and what did it teach you about economics?

A number of readers also pointed out the rather obvious follow-up to the 100 years in Iraq flap: if it's "out of context" to say McCain is willing to stay in Iraq for 100 years if troops are out of harm's way, does that mean 100 years is unacceptable if they are in harm's way? Timetable questions have been asked before but not in the context of this 100 years discussion - either he is willing to have troops die in Iraq for 100 years or he is not.

Reader questions were submitted on March 30. Scherer on April 2:

I still have not had a chance to respond to list of questions, but hope to get some posts up over the next few days to respond to at least some of them.

Scherer on April 4:

I was with McCain for two days, Wed. and Thu., during which he did not hold a press avail or gaggle. I did not get to ask him any questions directly.
I am pursuing this. I am pursuing some of the other topics that have been raised as well. But I don't want to get into the habit of telling too much about my plans in a public forum, so you will have to wait to be pleased or disappointed.
But let me begin with this insight: The popular impression that reporters always have constant access to McCain to ask whatever they want is not accurate. (Also inaccurate: The popular view that reporters covering McCain are unwilling to ask him challenging questions, or do stories that will upset the campaign.) He has traditionally been far more open than anyone else, but right now he is campaigning in a more traditional mode. Nothing outrageous about it. But is not as simple as you sending me a question and me nailing McCain down with the question. And this has nothing to do with McCain avoiding me or the question, or me not wanting to ask it. That is just the way the game works. So hang in there all.

Here Scherer is already lowering expectations -- it's hard work and he doesn't want to divulge secret plans. The excuse that McCain is not accessible is an odd one. Above Cox wrote "the guy holds about five hours of press conferences a day when he's on the trail." And Scherer, in his piece at Salon, wrote about McCain's "endless on-the-record access". If we believe that McCain is infinitely accessible it's only because the press, including Scherer and Cox, has repeated that ad nauseam.

Scherer on April 11. At this point he has not gotten answers to any of the questions and has not made any Swampland posts about them:

Again, you all misrepresent my relationship with the campaign. There are no nightly booze and bbq fests. The campaign's relationship to reporters can be at times quite adversarial. I do not get all the information I am seeking, so some of this takes more time than I would like.

As I write this it's May 30. As best I can tell Scherer's comments on April 11 were the last time he referenced the reader-asked questions -- questions he solicited and said he would post on -- in any way. He completely stopped responding to commenters asking for followups. It's become a running joke among his readers.

I would say it's disappointing but it isn't -- it's entirely expected.

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