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Commentary : On the Media

Joe the Plumber plunges into journalism

Most are going to find John McCain's campaign trail pal all wet when it comes to reporting.

February 11, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Muscling the "hot" and "cold" handles didn't work. So I removed them altogether and cranked down on the valves with a set of pliers. Still, water flowed out the spigot, into the bath and down the drain.

The plumber arrived not long after and, in no time, ended the deluge. I was $180 poorer, but it was worth it to have a professional make sure I didn't create Pasadena's newest wetlands.

That domestic scene came back to me as I watched videos of "Joe the Plumber" working the halls of Congress last week, promising to ferret out hard truths about the economic stimulus package.

There went Joe, interviewing his cabdriver and some senators, scowling about stimulus money going to Hollywood hotshots, insisting that real Americans don't back President Obama's plan.

It turns out Samuel J. Wurzelbacher looks about as capable with a microphone and a tough news story as I do with a wrench and a bathroom mess.

But in today's media environment -- where a thousand thousand blogs bloom and teenagers post video commentary on famine in Sudan -- anyone and everyone can play journalist.

That's just lovely in a democracy. But we're also (nominally) a free-market economy, so nouveau reporters still have to win an audience if they want to pay the rent. And I'm guessing that most are going to find John McCain's campaign trail pal -- pardon me -- all wet.

Wurzelbacher comes to us courtesy of the people at Pajamas Media, the El Segundo- based website that is the brainchild of novelist and screenwriter Roger Simon.

Pajamas features dozens of conservative bloggers and drew an audience of 120,000 to 280,000 a month in the run-up to the November election, according to the tracking firm comscore.com.

Looking for a long-term model for the future, Simon and company have turned to Internet video reports at comscore.com, with Joe the Plumber brought in last month as a headliner.

Wurzelbacher's first video missives came from Israel and focused on civilians living under threat from Hamas rockets. The locals seemed to love the big, bald reality star.

And who can blame them? Joe showed genuine compassion and didn't get bogged down with any messy details like, say, the suffering of Palestinian families on the other side of the conflict.

Simon told me that PJTV needed to balance coverage by other media that's just too sympathetic to the Palestinians.

The video site and its new star have shown a knack for not mucking up a story by, you know, telling both sides.

In one online report from Israel, the self-styled voice of the common man called journalists in a war zone a "distraction." He added, "I think the military should decide what information to release to the media and then the media can release it to the public."

Joe carried that lust for the official story to his Washington assignment. He got his talking points from the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and Club for Growth and then had the audacity (or was it naivete?) to call those rock-ribbed conservatives and libertarians "bipartisan" and "neutral."

Wurzelbacher was very polite when I called him at home in Holland, Ohio, this week. He conceded he didn't peg the think tanks correctly, adding: "There is a learning curve here. That's why I won't say I am a reporter any time soon. I am doing my best to just report the facts."

In one report, Joe nodded sympathetically as a Cato major-domo told him that medieval serfs got to keep more of their income than many Americans will retain under Obama.

Wurzelbacher leaped to celebrity in October with his curbside confrontation with Obama, in which he suggested the Democrat's proposed tax increase on upper-income Americans would cripple small businessmen like him. (Never mind that experts doubted he made anywhere near the $200,000 or more that would subject him to the hike.)

Wurzelbacher insisted that he hewed to no party line.

"I am not a Republican mouthpiece," the 35-year-old plumber told me. "I have conservative values, but that doesn't jibe with Republicans all the time."

He managed to disguise his bipartisanship under a veil of, well, hard-line partisanship. Joe squinted fiercely at one Democratic senator who told him the stimulus is not desirable, but a necessity. He fawned over a couple of GOP lawmakers who explained how the Democrats just love big government. He assured viewers that there's "absolutely no pork" in a Republican stimulus proposal.

Video Joe went after some familiar GOP scapegoats too, railing that an early stimulus proposal gave the "Hollywood elite" tax relief. He asked incredulously, "How many people does Hollywood put to work?"

If he had been doing more than throwing a hackneyed populist dart, Wurzelbacher could have learned the answer: About 250,000. That's how many people in the Los Angeles area, mostly middle-class unknowns, form the backbone of one of the few industries in which America remains competitive. Who would want to support them?

I called Wurzelbacher's old plumbing boss to offer my services, since Joe the Reporter is so busy moonlighting. Al told me he was on a job and couldn't talk. I figure I'm perfect. I know very little, but I've got lots of opinions about flapper valves.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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