posted by Josh Goodman
The University of Virginia's Larry Sabato has been called a lot of things, from "the Mark McGwire of political analysts," to "America's favorite political scientist," to the "Dr. Phil of American politics." But, even more than that, he's been called a lot of times, by a lot of reporters, for a lot of reasons.
To find out whether he was truly Sabiquitous in the past election year, I counted the number of states where reporters quoted the quick-quipping professor, beginning January 1, 2006.
That day, the Roanoke Times asked Sabato about home-state presidential hopeful Governor Mark Warner. The next day, he got Florida, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Louisiana out of the way. By the end of the month, his count was up to 21. By the end of the year, Sabato had been quoted in at least 46 states and the District of Columbia. That's not even counting syndicated columns or wire-service articles, unless it was clear to me that the author was based in the state in question.
Sabato's name graced journalists' copy hundreds of times last year, and reporters couldn't quite agree on just how to describe him.
Copley News Services called him "an expert on political scandals" in an article about misdeeds in the Ohio GOP, the Sarasota Herald Tribune said he was a "congressional expert" when writing about a congressional election, the Indianapolis Star described him as an "expert on presidential affairs" when writing about a presidential visit and the Richmond Times-Dispatch referred to him as "an expert in opinion and opinion making" when discussing Katie Couric's declining ratings.
Sabato found himself opining on far-flung topics besides just Katie Couric. Reporters asked him about the potential execution of a man who converted to Christianity in Afghanistan, the passage of mine safety legislation in West Virginia and President Bush's back rub of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (though he wasn't described as an Afghanistan, mine safety or back rub expert).
Where were the good professor's chances of being quoted in all 50 states Sabatoged? I couldn't find any record of him being quoted in Idaho, North Dakota, Oklahoma or Wyoming. However, I searched LexisNexis' database to conduct my research, and LexisNexis doesn't include every publication, so it's possible he was quoted in one of those states too.
All of this tempts me to say that political reporting is suffering from some of the same problems as local government reporting -- that over-stretched journalists tap Sabato as an easy source because they lack the time or wherewithal to cultivate relationships with insiders.
I do think that over-reliance on academics is a problem for political reporters, but, having known Sabato since I was a reporter with the University of Virginia's Cavalier Daily, I can tell you that besides being an easy source, he's also a good one. He has the connections of an insider, knows what makes a compelling quote and has a good sense of historical context. Plus, it never hurts when someone will promptly return your calls.