When the Gavin Newsom campaign put out the notice that former President Bill Clinton was endorsing the Prince of Prides for governor, it appeared our old friend Teddy Davis, deputy political director at ABC News, was first to break the news on abcnews.go.com.
Which was a smart play by the Newsom campaign because the story got a big, national bounce and it was cast exactly the way Newsom’s campaign Rasputin, Garry South, wanted it framed.
Why? Well it didn’t hurt that the story was written by Teddy, who cut his teeth in big-time politics as South’s personal right-hand man during Gray Davis’s (no relation) 1998 campaign for governor.
Surely the smart, honest and honorable Teddy –- who has since crossed over to neutral territory as an ABC news maven — did not set out to write a propaganda piece for the Newsom campaign. But that’s the practical effect of his article. And because of our astonishing seismic impact in shaping the story for national reporters and others looking in from outside California, Calbuzz feels an obligation to explain why this piece of reporting was all spin. (Our own analysis is available here.)
1. The first and crucial quote that frames the ABC story comes from Ben Tulchin, another old friend, who is cast as “a California-based pollster who is unaligned in the 2010 governor’s race.”
That may be technically true, but the estimable Tulchin is also very close to South: when Teddy Davis was South’s right-hand man, Tulchin served in the same capacity for Paul Maslin, who was Gray Davis’s pollster in the ’98 race. In addition, anyone following the race knows that Tulchin has been arguing for months that Newsom is the stronger candidate for governor and that voters will see Attorney General Jerry Brown as over-the-hill.
Tulchin’s second-graph quote: “This is huge. It’s a potential game-changer.” On this, the story hangs.
Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll or Mark Baldassare at PPIC would have been what you might call “neutral” polling sources. Tulchin is not.
2. To bolster the argument that Clinton can help Newsom expand his appeal to Latinos – especially now that LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has dropped out of the race – who did ABC quote but state Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, who happens to be chairman of Newsom’s campaign!
3. To further burnish the value of the Clinton endorsement, ABC turned to another Calbuzz friend, Chris Lehane, who joined Mark Fabiani (now his business partner), in the Clinton White House in 1995 as part of a rapid response team developed to deal with the growing number of investigations into bimbo eruptions, lying and indiscretions.
During the Gray Davis administration, Lehane and Fabiani were hired at $30,000 a month – the kind of expense Davis did not make without consulting Garry South — to run communications during the energy crisis. Until the controller refused to pay them because of a conflict of interest: they were already working as consultants to Southern California Edison which was negotiating with the state to avert bankruptcy.
Lehane, who is both brilliant and quick, also later helped South during the 2002 re-election campaign – playing the part of GOP opponent Bill Simon during debate preparation. He also worked against the Gray Davis recall the following year.
Whether Teddy Davis knows that Newsom often seeks Lehane’s counsel and that his press secretary, Peter Ragone, is a Lehane protégé, Calbuzz is not sure. But Joe Garofoli wrote about it in detail in the SF Chron back in 2004. He also noted that Lehane’s wife, Andrea Evans, was a Newsom appointee to the Commission on the Status of Women.
So using Lehane as a neutral political commentator on this story is bogus.
4. Calbuzz found it curious that in discussing the impact of Clinton’s endorsements on various races, ABC neglected to mention the most obvious one: the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign – Terry McAuliffe – who got waxed in the Virginia governor’s race this year, despite big-time support from Bill and Hillary.
5. There’s no argument by or even a response from anyone in the Brown camp about the effect of the endorsement. Nor is there any serious description of the 1992 campaign in which Jerry Brown attacked Clinton relentlessly – right up into the New York convention – creating tremendous bad blood between the Clintons and Brown.
As if to acknowledge this failure of reporting and balance, Teddy twice mentions 1992 – without explaining the background or what actually happened – only to swat it down.
“If the Brown campaign portrays the Clinton endorsement as lingering sour grapes over the 1992 campaign, Lehane said he thinks it could backfire.
“Bill Clinton is one of the most popular Democrats in California,” Lehane said. “The last thing in the world you would want to do is inject some conflict into this endorsement, because it would just get it out there in a bigger way.”
Also, ABC reported: “… the Brown camp may try to dismiss Clinton’s endorsement as simply the latest obligatory stop on the former president’s ‘payback tour.’ Tulchin said, however, that the Clinton endorsement cannot be dismissed so easily. ‘Clinton could have easily taken a pass,’ Tulchin said. ‘The fact that he is coming out now is a bold move.’”
Instead of serious argument, ABC created reportorial straw men, which were then destroyed with quotes from Lehane and Tulchin.
Calbuzz tried to talk to Teddy about the story but was informed by Ms. Emily Lenzer of ABC News Media Relations that, “it is ABC News policy for media relations to approve and/or handle all media requests.”
So Calbuzz sent an email outlining our critique and Emily replied with Teddy’s responses (summarized here):
– Tulchin is not polling for any of the current gubernatorial candidates and besides, Calbuzz quoted him as a “nonaligned Democratic pollster” back in March. (That’s true, Calbuzz did quote Tulchin — in a story about why Dianne Feinstein would not run for governor. So what?)
– Lehane was identified as a “former Clinton adviser,” and is quoted as saying: “Jerry Brown is still very much the candidate to beat and has run a great campaign to date.” (We didn’t say he wasn’t identified.)
– The ABC News story refers to the major 2010 races in which Bill Clinton has already made an endorsement. (But not the McAuliffe 2009 race.)
– Brown’s identity as a “1992 rival” of former President Clinton is reported throughout the story starting with the headline. (But who knows what that really means?)
– If an allegation is made about someone, ABC News makes a point of including reaction from the person or entity criticized. By contrast, this Clinton endorsement story does not include any criticism about Brown or his record. (ABC said the endorsement is a potential game changer that could upend the race. No one, from anywhere, argued otherwise.)
“ABC News stands by Teddy Davis’ reporting of this story,” said Lenzer. We’re glad that his employer is standing by our friend Teddy who, after all, worked for at least half of us back in the Davis administration.