OPINION: Joe the Plumber sign of the timesWritten by Associated Press | | firstname.lastname@example.org
By Julie Carr Smyth
AP Statehouse Correspondent
COLUMBUS — Joe the Plumber’s speedy journey from anonymity to fame to martyr at the hands of the media says volumes about modern American culture and politics.
Witness Joe’s sudden rise, a la American Idol, from nobody to superstar. Last week, less than three weeks after his chat on taxes with Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, Samuel J. “Joe” Wurzelbacher was so inundated with media attention he was forced to hire a publicist.
In keeping with the modern era, hiring a lawyer may be his next step. Joe wonders whether records on him kept by the Ohio government — particularly the Department of Job and Family Services _ have been improperly accessed for political purposes. The state Inspector General is investigating.
Obama’s Republican rival, John McCain, cited Joe during their final debate presumably because Wurzelbacher was an average guy, a plumber from Toledo with plans for the future and concerns about paying the bills.
In a presidential race daunting in its import, length and ubiquity, glimpses of real people affected by the issues help Americans navigate the campaigns, said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“Something has changed with the audience,” she said. “The audience is really, really, really interested in small sideshows.”
Both campaigns and journalists latch onto these real-world stories to help explain the issues and the stakes. Portions of Obama’s 30-minute infomercial last week, featuring personal vignettes from swing political states such as Ohio, served a similar purpose.
But before 24-hour news channels and the Internet, only a few such stories received intense attention. Remember Baby Jessica stuck in the well? Or Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy caught in a politically charged custody battle? Or O.J. Simpson’s suddenly famous house guest, Kato Kaelin?
“It used to be a phenomenon that occurred a couple of times a year. Now it happens every week,” McBride said.
Records released last week by the administration of Democratic Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland showed that 25 separate requests were made within two days of the McCain-Obama debate for public records on Wurzelbacher.
The requests came from The Associated Press, a host of Ohio newspapers and broadcast outlets, as well as national entities such as CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and Newsweek.
McBride said responsible journalists make such inquiries every day. She called it a “completely appropriate” role for the reporter.
“Rather than staying on the surface, we have to dig deeper because we give people authority and credibility (when they receive press coverage),” she said. “That’s fine, but we need to confer that with responsibility.”
What may not have been appropriate was if social services records on Wurzelbacher — of issues of child support, public assistance and the like — were accessed by unauthorized personnel for political reasons after the debate.
Job and Family Services Director Helen Jones-Kelley said in a letter last week that no such thing happened. She told Senate President Bill Harris, a Republican concerned about a possible breach, that she would “never authorize or turn a blind eye to accessing departmentally-maintained databases for any non-governmental purpose.” (The underline was hers.)
In the minds of the public, the potentially improper access to Wurzelbacher’s records quickly blurred with the phenomenon of dozens of inquiries by journalists into his public records — and a torrent of criticism was unleashed.
Most of the hostility was aimed at the media.
Most likely, reporters sought Wurzelbacher’s plumber’s license the day after the debate in order to garner an address and go interview him. There wasn’t one. McBride argues that an instantly known plumber without a plumber’s license is the kind of things citizens might want to know about.
“People everywhere should be doing the same thing with your local principals, with your local mayors, with powerful business people in your community,” she said. “Everyone has a set of public records that comes with them, and the fact that Joe is now is on the campaign trail with McCain makes it even more appropriate.”
In short order, Wurzelbacher made a guest appearance on Fox News to discuss his treatment by the media.
“It actually upsets me,” Wurzelbacher told host Mike Huckabee. “I am a plumber, and just a plumber, and here Barack Obama or John McCain _ these guys are going to deal with some serious issues coming up shortly, and the media’s worried about whether I’ve paid my taxes, they’re worried about any number of silly things that have nothing to do with America.”
During the interview, Huckabee appeared to merge Wurzelbacher’s experience with the mainstream media — more than 100 reporters camped out on his street at one point — with commentary about him that peppered the Internet.
Assuming that he hadn’t been embraced and featured by the McCain-Palin campaign, Joe the Plumber’s story would have faded quickly in the era before bloggers and around-the-clock news programs existed to keep it alive, McBride said.
“t used to be that one of the natural regulators of the news was the amount of space there was to tell the news,” she said. “That is not the case anymore. We all have infinite space.”