Did the media do enough to pursue Gemma's claims?

This morning, Providence Monthly convened a panel of political reporters and editors to dicuss the state of political reporting - and, really, all kinds of reporting - in Rhode Island.

It was a good group - Tim Murphy, assistant managing editor for public policy at the Providence Journal, reporters Tim White and Ted Nesi of WPRI-TV, Rhode Island Public Radio political reporter Ian Donnis, reporter Erika Niedowski of the Associated Press, news editor and reporter Dan McGowan of golocalprov, and myself.

One of the many topics we discussed: Gemmapalooza. That, of course, is shorthand for  Congressional candidate Anthony Gemma's circus-like press conference this summer at which he unveiled detailed, but unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud by his Democratic primary opponent, Congressman David Cicilline.

There was some back-and-forth about whether the media - obligated to cover what was undoubtedly the state's top story of the day - leant too much credence to Gemma's claims with its big headlines or managed to convey a proper level of skepticism.

I come down in the latter camp. I think the media made it pretty plain that the charges hadn't been substantiated. And Republican Congressional candidate Brendan Doherty's internal polling, which shows that voter fraud is but a minor concern among the electorate, may be one indication of the media's implicit - and in some cases, explicit - judgment of the charges.

But if Gemma's charges warranted the skepticism with which they were received, I wonder if the media - which demanded that the candidate verify his claims - went far enough in investigating those claims, in doing its own verification.

There was, I should say, some good reporting. The day of Gemma's press conference, White of WPRI got out on the streets and demonstrated that some of the candidate's claims about fictitious voters registering at storefronts and vacant lots weren't as sinister as he suggested.

The ProJo, at one point, ran an interview with a former Cicilline campaign worker who made some reasonably credible claims about fraud. And golocalprov unearthed the story of a former Cicilline campaign volunteer who won a loan from the city of Providence, when Ciclline was serving as mayor, that he never repaid.

But as far as I can tell, neither the Journal nor any other outlet - the Phoenix included - engaged in a full-scale investigation of Gemma's claims.

It is, of course, enitirely possible that this kind of investigation would have come up empty. That made it difficult for any media outlet, in an era of constrained resources, to invest the time and resources in a deep dive. And that gets to one of the central questions that came up in our panel discussion today.

All of the reporters around the table - myself included - lauded the proliferation of media outlets in Rhode Island. If the ProJo is still the undisputed king of Ocean State journalism, anyone who cares about the news in this state is missing a big chunk of the picture if he or she is not checking out WPRI, Rhode Island Public Radio, golocalprov, the Associated Press, and any number of ideologically oriented sites like rifuture and Anchor Rising.

But these outlets have nothing like the resources of the ProJo at its peak a few decades back. Twenty years ago, the paper might have thrown a couple of its top investigators on Gemma's most credible claims, just to see what might happen. Now, it's harder to see how that story gets reported.

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