One challenge facing the army of journalists who've been covering this year's presidential race is how to deal with the fact that so little has changed over the past five months, that the campaign's central dynamic seems frozen in time and that it doesn't appear it will soon change. Polls, in general, have remained constant since March, when it became clear Sen. John Kerry would win the Democratic nomination. And every indication is the race will remain close -- and virtually unchanged -- right up until Election Day. Throw in the fact that this is the first race for the White House in 16 years in which reporters and pundits haven't had a significant Clinton angle to chew over -- they obsessed throughout the 2000 campaign even though Clinton wasn't even running -- and journalists have sometimes had to scramble to fill the political news hole.
One temptation, given the "Ground Hog Day"-like realities of the campaign trail, is for reporters and editors to piece together stories where none actually exist, or push an interesting hypothesis onto Page One under the guise of uncovering a vital campaign subplot. There was a perfect example of that Sunday in the Newark Star-Ledger, New Jersey's largest daily newspaper. The A1 story was headlined, "Religious blacks find a reason to back president; Gay marriage swaying voters." The story reported, "A growing number of churchgoing African-Americans are giving [Bush's] new candidacy a second look and could become crucial voters in battleground states such as Pennsylvania." Why the second look for a president who won just 8 percent of the black vote in 2000, the worst showing for a Republican candidate in nearly 50 years? According to the Star-Ledger it's because "African-Americans oppose same-sex marriage proportionally more than most Americans." The bottom line was Bush found "himself in the unlikely position of winning more black votes" in 2004.
It's an intriguing idea, that African-American voters would overlook what appears to be a laundry list of policy disagreements with Bush and instead cast their vote for him based on his singular opposition to gay marriage. But anything is possible, right? The problem is that once readers delved into the story, they learned the Star-Ledger's grand premise was based on interviews with just 15 African-American churchgoers at a single Philadelphia congregation, three of whom said they voted Democratic in 2000, but, opposed to gay marriage, plan to switch and vote for Bush in 2004. "The rest said other concerns would lead them as usual to the Democratic column," the Star-Ledger conceded.
In fact, of the four churchgoers quoted in the story, only one agreed with the article's basis premise, insisting "I'd vote for Bush if Kerry's not going to stand for basic principles that we need in this country. We're not gonna accept that [gay] lifestyle." The remaining three all dismissed the idea: "I'm against same-sex marriage, but I also don't support unjustified war and killing people. That's a bigger issue than same-sex marriage," said one, referring to Bush's war with Iraq.
Given the article's content, it seems a more appropriate -- and factual -- headline would have been, "As a Bush campaign issue, religious blacks seemed unmoved by gay marriage debate." Of course, that sort of dog-bites-man story isn't going to fill space on Page One.