Friday, February 5, 2010

Blown Coverage

Posted By on 02.05.10 at 02:14 PM

John Kass sounded seriously apologetic on the radio Friday over the terrible job the media did in vetting Scott Lee Cohen, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor with the flamboyant history.

“Our job as reporters is to find stuff out, is to vet and scrub every candidate, and that wasn’t done in this case,” Kass told WGN’s Greg Jarrett.

There was a delicious story to be written — steroids, hookers, assault charges all figured in Cohen's murky pawnbroking history — and no one had written it, except the Sun-Times's Mark Brown, months ago, and Brown admits he didn't do it justice.

So Kass was sorry as any reporter is sorry who let a good one get away. But his regrets went beyond that. He sounded embarrassed for his business. "All of us should have done a better job. We didn't," he said. "I can't explain it....I'm sorry. I won't let it happen again."

Cohen hadn't even hidden his past. When he filed for lieutenant governor last March he'd told Brown about his checkered past. And Brown thought, who cares? He writes, "How was I to know way back then that the Democratic voters of Illinois would be so dumb as to elect him, brainwashed by millions of dollars in advertising about his job fairs? That's why I told Cohen at the time that nobody even knew who he was, let alone cared enough to want to read about his dirty laundry, and I didn't see the need to go into it."

The only false note Kass struck — and it wasn't so much false as naive — came when he told Jarrett that it wouldn't happen again. "The next guy who runs for mosquito abatement district in some suburb — who got pinched shoplifting — you know vampire fangs for his Halloween costume when he was ten years old — that’s what happened to me when I was ten — I guarantee you that'll be out there.”

But when it happened this time it was happening again. In 1986 Mark Fairchild, a LaRouchie, won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, and the only way the gubernatorial candidate, Adlai Stevenson III, could disentangle himself was to to create a third party and run as its nominee. As the Solidarity Party candidate,Stevenson lost to incumbent governor Jim Thompson by about 400,000 votes. Four years earlier, as the Democratic candidate, he'd lost to Thompson by about 5,000 votes. Now Stevenson's advising Quinn to think about his own third-party run, which would have the advantage of being virtuous and disadvantage of being almost sure to fail.

In the Democratic primary, Fairchild had defeated a state senator favored by Stevenson; Cohen defeated a state representative, Art Turner. If you're running for lieutenant governor, it apparently helps to be totally unknown. Next thing you know we'll have stealth candidates financed by the opposition running for lieutenant governor in order to sabotage the ticket. I suppose we don't have that yet.

Nothing shows the need for professional media more clearly than professional media themselves when they don't produce. In a better world we'd have read about polling that showed Scott Lee Cohen coming on strong, and on the Republican side gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady coming on strong. (But is there some poetic justice in Pat Quinn, for all the trouble Cohen poses, at least getting to run against a guy who has no problem with creationism being taught in the public schools?)

This was a terrible election. It was too soon, the candidates were too many and too mediocre, and to judge from the turnout, as well as some of the nominees, the public was neither engaged nor informed. (Studying a ballot in November is going to be like rooting around in the bins of a second-hand store for a used T-shirt worth buying at the price.) The press might have been better than the candidates, but it wasn't.

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