Iowa, Chickens, And Campaign Journalism

Ever since 2000, when Vice President Al Gore got run over by a campaign press corps way too eager to wallow in Republican spin about what a phony exaggerator the candidate was, Democrats and progressives have been weary of campaign journalism that doubles as GOP spin; campaign dispatches that seamlessly echo efforts to push narratives about inauthentic Democratic candidates. And journalism that sets aside substance in order to focus on thin, bogus anecdotes that pass as supposed “gaffes,” or proof of a character flaw.

That distressing trend is currently on display in Iowa, where Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst are vying to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring member Tom Harkin. The race remains extremely close and represents a crucial contest for Democrats as they try to maintain control of the Senate.

Yet the press keeps writing about chickens.

The tale hyped as an Iowa game-changer revolves around a pedestrian disagreement between Braley and a neighbor who kept letting her chickens roam onto Braley's yard. The story's been told and retold by CNN, Politico, McClatchy Newspapers, Los Angeles Times, The Week, Slate, and The Washington Post among others. 

The outsized coverage it has received from the national press doesn't speak well of today's campaign journalism, since the unnecessary retellings are often misleading or dishonest. Worse, the tale's relayed almost exclusively through the prism of Braley's Republican opponents who claimed Braley threatened to sue over the minor matter. He did not. And without the threat there is no story.

Yet the anecdote endures, enjoying an unusually long shelf life. First spun by a Republican operative in July who kick-started the coverage with a blantantly false telling, the story was still getting fresh media pick-up in late September. Why the interest? And why the media reluctance to debunk what's so obviously an inaccurate story being pushed by Republicans? Rather than debunking, journalists have spent the last two months hyping its importance.

From the Washington Post:

The battle for control of the U.S. Senate could come down to a dispute between two neighbors in this heartland hamlet over four plump, wander-prone hens.

And with that, The Washington Post helped etch into stone the agreed-upon narrative: The chicken squabble Could Decide The Election, and therefore the chicken squabble Could Decide Control Of The U.S. Senate.

That can-you-believe-it proclamation has been repeated again and again:  

* Fowl Fight: Could 4 Chickens Sway Iowa Senate Race?

* Senate Seat Might Turn On Chicken Poop And Hogs

* In Iowa, A Dispute Over Neighbor's Chickens Threatens Braley's Senate Bid

The problem is there's nothing to support it. In none of the coverage I've seen has any reporter been able to point to anything tangible (i.e. polling data, interviews with a cross section of voters, quotes from statewide, independent observers) to support the keyed-up claim  that the Hawkeye State was abuzz over the chicken story and/or that votes were being lost over it. (That lack of local interest might be one reason why the state's largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register, has paid little attention to the kerfuffle.)  

To date, I count a grand total of three people in Iowa (not including Republican operatives) who have publicly stated their displeasure over Braley's handling of the chicken squabble with neighbor Pauline Hampton: Hampton herself, her neighbor William Nagel, and the secretary of the lake association's board, Terry Maxfield. (There might be one or two others.)

I suppose if Braley were running for lake association office those disgruntled neighbors might be of someone. But Braley's running for the U.S. Senate in a state with nearly two million registered voters. So why has the mostly pointless chicken quarrel been elevated to such heights?  

The only two camps excited about, and vested in, the chicken story have been Republican operatives and national journalists.

The background: Braley and his wife Carolyn own a modest vacation house on Holiday Lake in Brooklyn, Iowa. This spring, neighbor Pauline Hampton bought some chickens and let them roam on and off her property even though the governing lake association doesn't allow animals on owners' property unless they are pets. Carolyn Braley joined neighbors who objected to the lake association, complaining about the smell of the animals and the fact the chickens regularly defecated on neighbors' lawns.

In May, Bruce Braley called the association's lawyer to check on the status of the complaint. Based on that conversation, the attorney wrote an email to the association's board informing members that Braley believed “chickens are not pets and should not be permitted at Holiday Lake,” and that Braley wanted to “avoid a 'litigious situation.'”

Republicans have since latched onto that phrase, “litigious situation,” and announced Braley had threatened to sue, or had actually sued, when he had done no such thing. The trumped-up allegation soon became a key plank in the campaign to paint Braley as an arrogant pol who's out of touch with everyday Iowa voters.

Two months after that phone call, former Politico-reporter-turned-GOP-operative Jeff Patch typed up a one-sided account of the dispute for the conservative website The Iowa Republican. Patch's piece stands as something of a model for how to misstate the same fact as many times as possible in the confines of a single article [emphasis added]:  

Headline: Braley Threatened Litigation Over Chickens at Holiday Lake Vacation Home


Claim: Braley was embroiled in a “bizarre legal battle with a neighbor over her chickens.”


Claim: Braley was “launching a contentious legal battle involving a neighbor and her four therapeutic hens.”


Claim: "Braley's legal problem started this spring when a chicken crossed his property line."


Claim: “Braley called the association's attorney with an implied threat of legal action.”


But other than that, Patch's reporting was solid, right? Wrong.

Claim: “The dispute escalated, causing the association to incur nearly $1,700 in legal fees.”


As Bill Jensen, the association board's vice president, explained to a local newspaper, that $1,700 legal fee represents how much the attorney bills the association for the month, and that his duties included more than dealing with the Braley dispute.

In retrospect, Patch's article was little more than a Republican Party-generated press release that wallowed in misinformation, which was fitting, because a week after he published it, the Iowa Republican Party announced that he had been hired as their communications director. 

Still, the storyline gained momentum, aided in part by Republican spinners. In July, Karl Rove's American Crossroads Super PAC produced an attack ad accusing Braley of threatening to sue his neighbor. More recently, Ernst herself spread the falsehood, claiming in a debate that Braley “threatened to sue a neighbor over chickens that came onto their property.”

He did not.

But news consumers were forgiven if they assumed Braley had sued or threatened court action, since it's been reported that way for months. “Braley had warned of ”a litigious situation" if a neighbor's chickens continued to roam into the yard of his vacation home," Politico reported. Buzzfeed suggested there was a “threat of potential legal action,” while The Week reported Braley “threatened a lawsuit against his neighbor.”

As noted, that's all false. Braley did not warn of a “litigious situation” nor was there a threat of legal action. Braley wanted to avoid a “litigious situation,” according to the attorney's email.

Politifact came to that same conclusion this week: “There is no material evidence that Braley threatened a lawsuit against the neighbor or was even considering one.”

Question Why didn't more journalists covering this story reach that same, obvious conclusion in recent weeks and months? Why didn't they aggressively kick the legs out from underneath an obviously trumped-up allegation at the center of a GOP attack campaign?   

For the record, the only party involved in the chicken dispute who has publicly contemplated taking legal action is Pauline Hampton. (She has a "litigious history.")* But the press prefers telling a tale about how an out-of-touch Braley threatened to sue.

And that's precisely what the GOP hoped for.  

*Language updated for clarity