On Vetting

ProJo columnist Bob Kerr writes in his column today on the Daniel Gordon drama:

...we really do have to ask ourselves how a guy who did really bad stuff and spent time in jail managed to get elected without anyone taking a hard look at a very ugly history.

It is a good question. But I'd ask another. Two actually: who, exactly, should have unearthed Gordon's history? And who should be tasked with the responsibility of vetting candidates going forward?

There are plenty of people to blame for the Gordon affair: the candidate for concealing his criminal past in the run-up to the election, the Democrats for a failure of opposition research. But I'm most interested in the press's role. Should the media have dug this up during campaign season?

The pat answer is "yes." Media reports of the last couple of days, detailing Gordon's offenses, demonstrate that the arrest records were there for the finding. But it's not that simple.

The press corps is thinner than it used to be. The Providence Journal 's regional bureaus, which made local legislative races their bread-and-butter, are no more. And I'm not convinced that a ProJo bureau reporter would have caught this anyway.

I worked in a Journal bureau for a time. The demands on reporters for daily stories were great, the opportunities for in-depth reporting - for, say, searching out-of-state criminal records for every local candidate in the hopes of turning something up - were limited.

Just as important, the paper's culture called for standard, tick-tock, here's-where-this-guy-stands-on-pensions-and-gay-marriage, here's-where-that-guy-stands coverage. This, I think, is the real problem. And the ethos pervades not just local race coverage, but coverage of higher profile state and federal races.

It's not just the ProJo that's to blame, here - though the paper is probably best equipped, of any news organization in the state, to do better. The media, writ large, is falling short.

And it must do better. Representative Scott Slater's call for a new law requiring criminal background checks of candidates is intriguing, but it seems a bridge too far for government. This is really the press's job.

A more robust approach may not have caught Gordon's history; he was relatively small fry in the sweep of races last year. But it would have allowed for the possibility. And with a more robust approach, who knows what more we'd have found out about David Cicilline or Lincoln Chafee or John Robitaille - and I'm not just talking wrongdoing, here, but questions of leadership style and worldview - come Election Day? 

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