Behind the story of Tom Keefe’s departure as interim dean at Saint Louis University’s law school lies an interesting backstory about the inner workings of academia and journalism.
The tsunami of controversy that Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin unleashed this week hit with such speed and force that it was hard to sort the spectacle from the substance.
The spectacle was riveting, with Akin topping national newscasts and talk shows, front pages and webpages. As media frenzies go, we haven’t seen anything like this since Mark McGwire left town. Following standard damage control, Akin said that he had misspoken when he used the term “legitimate rape,” apologized and tried to move on.
But the storm kept building. Republican leaders, from Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to Missouri’s current and former GOP senators, called on Akin to leave the race. Funders fled. This was no run-of-the-mill campaign gaffe. Beyond what Akin’s remark may have revealed about his own thinking, it brought attention to positions and divisions that threaten to undermine the party’s hopes to retake the Senate and White House — all this on the eve of the Republican convention.
The Beacon mobilized not just to highlight the rapidly breaking developments, but also to illuminate the story behind the story. Reporters Jason Rosenbaum, Jo Mannies, Dale Singer and Bob Joiner pressed to get more information about what, exactly, Akin was apologizing for, to look at the underlying issues, to recount pertinent Missouri political history and to explain why the matter was currently so sensitive for the party.
They found that many politicians were reluctant to speak in detail about what was going on. Democrats were happy to let Republicans stew in the their own problems. Republicans were quick to distance themselves in a general way from Akin. But they were less eager to discuss their own positions on abortion or the split between party leaders, who wanted Akin out, and some anti-abortion and evangelical leaders, who wanted him in.
The person most willing to expound on these hypersensitive topics seemed to be Akin himself. He denounced “party bosses” for repudiating him. He reiterated his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape. He avoided explaining in detail what he was recanting beyond use of the word “legitimate,” and briefly acknowledged again that rape can result in pregnancy, but he was otherwise outspoken and, policy-wise, out there.
This was vintage Akin. His word choice and shaky grasp of medical facts may have come as a shock to voters and party leaders, but no one should have been surprised that Akin was trumpeting tough stands on issues that other candidates might mute. In recent weeks, as the Beacon has reported, Akin spoke of his opposition not only to abortion but also to the federal school lunch program, student loans and the direct election of senators, among other issues.
While most candidates frame their positions in appealing soundbites and watch their timing to avoid controversy, Akin typically speaks his mind, shining a spotlight on positions that others would rather relegate to the wings. That proved particularly troublesome this week for Republicans, many of whom share Akin’s abortion position and who support the draft party platform which reflects that.
Among those calling for Akin to step aside was former Sen. John C. Danforth, who lamented that the campaign had been sidetracked from other important issues.
“What Congressman Akin’s statement did is get us into a massive diversion from what we have to be presenting to the people of our state and the people of our country in very clear fashion,” Danforth told the Beacon. “Sixteen trillion dollars of debt is not an easy problem to solve. There’s no popular way to do it. It’s going to take serious consideration and serious thought by our public in the two and a half months ahead. And this has got us going into a side issue which is, to say the least, strange.”
I share his concern about the need for campaigns — and campaign coverage — to address consequential issues. We should focus as intensely on the budget, health care and other dry but significant topics as we have on Todd Akin and the significant issue of abortion this week.
Yet, as we’ve just been reminded, no one can predict when developments will ignite a furor. We can instead pledge to report with depth, context and specificity on issues that catch fire, giving voters the information they need to sort the substance from the spectacle.