Is Joe The Plumber Fair Game?

Jon Chait Cohn, on the media coverage of everybody's favorite everyman:

... Running with thinly-sourced or unconfirmed allegations about Wurzelbacher's personal life--his financial records, his license situation, his marriage--goes too far. Wurzelbacher doesn't seem particularly skittish about speaking his mind or getting attention for it. But there's no way he could be prepared for the kind of scrutiny that comes with being the political world's most famous talking point.

As a result, writers should allow Wurzelbacher a bit more privacy than they would the typical public figure. And when printing anything that touches on his personal life, even remotely, they should be sure to confirm it first. So far, it seems, writers haven't always done that.

One reason I feel strongly about this is that I've seen it all happen before. As you may recall, back in 2007, a young boy from Baltimore named Graeme Frost was tapped to give the Democrats' weekly radio address. Congress was in the middle of debating whether to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP). Frost, who relied upon the program to cover ongoing medical treatments from a severe car accident, used his story to argue for the program's growth.

Within days, though, right-wing bloggers started digging into the Frost family story in order to prove he didn't really need S-CHIP. To make their point, they published "revelations" based on hearsay, hasty public records searches, or mere suspicion. The Frosts had new marble countertops in their kitchen! They had enrolled their kids in one of Baltimore's toniest private schools! They could have bought insurance if they wanted it!

Okay, but ... Graeme Frost and Graeme Frost's parents chose to become a spokesfamily for a particular piece of legislation, and to place their personal story in the service of the Democratic Party's political agenda. Whereas all Joe Wurzelbacher did was ask a question on a rope line. Now, it seems like he enjoyed the ensuing attention - or at least initially he did - and it's true that John McCain, not the prying media, was responsible for turning him into a national celebrity by citing him endlessly in the last debate. But if you're talking about the vexed question of how much privacy the media should afford citizens whose life stories become political footballs, the Frosts and Wurzelbacher seem like at best imperfect equivalents: The S-Chip family asked for their celebrity to a far greater extent than Joe the Plumber did.

Chait Cohn embeds his argument in an attack on Michelle Malkin's hypocrisy, since she led the charge to investigate the Frosts but posted an outraged attack on the media invasions of Wurzelbacher's privacy. But citing Malkin throws into relief another difference between the cases. As Byron York noted last week, the only people who pounced on the Frosts were right-wing bloggers like Malkin; the mainstream media followed up later on, and covered the story as a case of a boy and his family being "attacked by conservative bloggers." That's not, to put it mildly, how outlets like the Times have pursued and framed the Wurzelbacher story. Now there are reasons for this difference apart from straightforward media bias: Frost's age, for one thing, and the fact that a Presidential election produces much more of a feeding frenzy than a health care debate. But I doubt they're much of a comfort to Joe the Plumber at the moment. And between this business and the bad-taste-in-your-mouth Cindy McCain "investigation," it seems like a bad week for Clark Hoyt to come out with a thumbsucker on how wonderfully evenhanded and judicious his paper is.

And yes, to echo Tyler Cowen, in an ideal world this whole controversy would prompt politicians to stand up against the mandatory licensing of plumbers - and of quite a few other occupations as well. (Cutting down on licensing requirements is one of the many small-bore notions we float in Grand New Party, and one of the least likely to be realized.)

My apologies to both Jons for the mix-up.