Apparently, common sense isn’t required to be CNN’s senior political editor, as Mark Preston, the man who holds that title, fell hook, line and sinker for Joe Arpaio’s hype machine Sept. 8, when he unquestioningly reported on the network’s website that the sheriff “is not closing the door on a presidential run in 2012.”
Really? That passes the smell test for reporters at the country’s first 24-hour cable news network? In a post on its Political Ticker blog titled “‘America’s Toughest Sheriff’ considers presidential bid,” Preston parroted information from a press release that made reporters across the Valley laugh earlier in the day.
The press release was sent by GOP political consultant Chad Willems, who is running the sheriff’s 2012 re-election campaign. It announced that Arpaio would be serving as the keynote speaker at the Nashua Republican City Committee in New Hampshire this weekend.
Willems included this line, which he told me was intended more as a joke than anything: “Arpaio’s visit has fueled speculation among many of his supporters that his appearance at this luncheon with New Hampshire Republicans is a ‘testing of the waters’ for a run for the White House in 2012.”
Preston spoke with Willems, who tried to distance himself from the quote in the press release by saying Arpaio wasn’t actually testing the waters for a presidential run, before telling CNN that “people just don’t go to New Hampshire if they are not interested in these things.”
When I talked to Willems Sept. 10, he said he stressed to Preston and another reporter from the Los Angeles Times that Arpaio was only going to New Hampshire because he was invited to speak. “I told them, it’s not a presidential campaign. He’s just a popular guy with Republicans,” he said. “I think these reporters are more jacked about New Hampshire than I am.” Neither reporter, he said, was willing to accept that Arpaio wasn’t intent on running for president in 2012.
“Mark Preston was just talking over me when I was telling him what we were doing there,” Willems said.
The idea that a county sheriff, albeit one with the national recognition of Arpaio, was being discussed as a potential presidential candidate should have set off alarm bells for any reporter. I know it did in our newsroom.
Sure, we’re used to Arpaio’s media-whoring nature, but one would assume skepticism is a key trait for reporters at any level, whether a rural community paper or a major cable news network.
Of course, writing a skeptical piece about Arpaio’s announcement – or, even better, ignoring it because it didn’t make any sense – doesn’t generate many page views in the Internet age.
– Jim Small