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Oliver campaign calls out mayoral coverage

Throughout this campaign, much of the media has stuck to a narrow conception of the race when there was no independent evidence to support it – and, indeed,…

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On February 3, the Temple University Center for Public Interest Journalism announced what should have been a groundbreaking partnership with several major news organizations. The stated goal:

“To provide voters with fresh and critical content on the race for the city’s next mayor, with a sharp focus on the major issues facing Philadelphia.” Calling itself “The Next Mayor” project, the advisory continued: “’The Next Mayor’ will elevate reporting above the din of campaign commercials, rhetoric and horse-race polling, bringing in the voices of citizens and spotlighting issues of importance to them. The unique collaboration will help broaden the base of informed voters, and enlarge coverage for civic convenings throughout the city.”

This was typical of the hopes we all had back in February, as this race took shape. But what started off so well-intentioned derailed into a hodgepodge mix of shoddy journalism, reliance on inherently flawed information and a bending of reporting to fit a de facto agreed-upon narrative. By refusing to treat seriously candidates whose only flaw was coming from outside the expected cookie-cutter mold, the theoretically neutral media played an active role in trying to turn that narrative into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Throughout this campaign, much of the media has stuck to a narrow conception of the race when there was no independent evidence to support it – and, indeed, even when there was significant evidence to the contrary. By relying on a small circle of the same sources, they created and reinforced a bubble and a narrative that took on a life of its own. They’ve belittled candidates who didn’t fit their mold – note, for instance, Tom Ferrick’s consistent statements in print and in social media that Nelson Diaz wasn’t telling the truth about his accomplishments during his career, or everyone in the media’s inability to properly cite or acknowledge Doug Oliver’s job experience and title.

There’s been racially-charged language used to describe candidates. There was a jaw-dropping lede with cringe-worthy language about Doug Oliver’s TV ad in the Inquirer, and a consistent “angry brown man” narrative about Nelson Diaz – who has been no more passionate in his speech than either of the putative frontrunners. At the same time, we’ve seen a hyper-focus on race and racial math, and a blatant disregard of the lessons that should have been learned from the most two recent open seat mayoral races where racial math proved flexible. Recent history has shown us that in mayoral elections, Philadelphians overwhelmingly make up their own minds on what they feel is in their own personal best interest. 

Most troubling, there’s been what seems to be a conscious decision to actively define some of the candidates by their pasts and their associations, while giving a pass to one candidate for the same things. Outside of some notable exceptions, almost all reporting on policy proposals has been either stenographic or hand-waving dismissals of ideas as boring or impossible to achieve – unless those ideas came from someone not in this race. There has been no little real analysis of actual proposals, and little to no comparison of rhetoric to record. We share Sen. Williams frustration with the coverage of education policy in this race, because despite what you might have read and despite superficial similarities, the candidates have quite different proposals about almost every aspect of education policy.

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There have been notable examples of objective and balanced reporting. The entire staff at Newsworks/WHYY and PlanPhilly – Brian Hickey, Katie Colaneri and Dave Davies – Max Marin and Ana Gamboa at AL DÍA, and the upstart journalists at Billy Penn have made extraordinary efforts to cover the race fairly. This list is not meant to be exclusive, just an example of writing that there should have been more of.

This process deserved better, and the citizens who count on the objectivity of their media also deserve better.  In an environment with declining interest in traditional journalism and especially print media, there was a tremendous opportunity to set an example for excellence in journalism and to reverse the trend of disinterest especially by younger voters in the process. That opportunity is being missed. 

Editor's note: at 5:13 p.m. May 7, Barry Caro, Communications Director for Nelson Diaz, requested that his name be removed from the double byline of this story. The headline has been modified to reflect that change.

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