Appointed incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet?

Here are the titles used by The Denver Post in March and April (as well as recent examples from The Spot) to introduce U.S. Sen. Bennet in news stories or blog posts:

  • Michael Bennet
  • Sen. Michael Bennet
  • U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet
  • Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet
  • Incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet
  • Incumbent U.S. Senator Michael Bennet
  • Appointed Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet
  • Appointed incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet
  • Appointed incumbent Michael Bennet
  • Incumbent appointed Democrat Michael Bennet

There may be more combinations, but these are the kinds of titles you’ll find if you’ve got bean-counting time on your hands.

 The most common titles are simply “U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet,” “Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet,” or “Sen. Michael Bennet.” These were used to introduce Bennet in more than half the 50 articles I reviewed.

“U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet” and “Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett” are my own preferences, in part because multi-word titles like, “Incumbent appointed Democrat Michael Bennet” are clumsy to read, and I waste time pondering their meaning.

But mostly I prefer a title like “U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet”  because that’s what he is. He was appointed in accordance with our laws, and his title is “U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet” or “Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet.”

Still, the fact that Bennet was appointed to be our U.S. Senator is relevant information for readers, because he’s in fact an unusual type of U.S. Senator, given that he was appointed. So if I were a Post reporter, I’d use the word “appointed” occasionally, in a parenthetical context, but not routinely, like it’s used in this Post article April 18:

Appointed Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet already has raised millions and will benefit more from PAC and party support. Bennet receives money in $5,000 and $10,000 increments, for example, from trade group PACs and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Calling him “incumbent Sen. Bennet” or “appointed incumbent Sen. Bennet” needlessly spotlights the fact that he’s an incumbent. If he’s “Sen. Bennet” he’s by definition an incumbent. I mean, it’s redundant. Senators are incumbents. Stringing together “incumbent” with “Senator” looks like Republican propaganda in a year when incumbents are not popular. And even if “incumbent” wasn’t in the GOP attack lexicon, there’s no need to use it, like this in The Spot April 14:

Romanoff also hit other points he has emphasized on the campaign trail so far, where he is trying to gain support against appointed incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet for the primary nomination in August.

In fact, once Bennet is identified as “Sen.” in an article, there’s no need to emphasize again that he’s an incumbent. I’m not saying reporters should never write the word as part of a longer story that benefits stylistically from referring to Bennet in different ways, but the use of the word “incumbent” should be fairly rare.

I sent my views on this topic to Denver Post staff writer Michael Booth, and he emailed me a thoughtful  response below:

The goal is to give as many readers as possible the most relevant information in a given story. We have considered all of these modifiers, talked about them in the newsroom, and reconsidered them after the usual relentless pushback from various campaign interests.

First, I’d say there is a fundamental difference between the way you are reading the paper or Spot blogs, and the myriad ways our hundreds of thousands of readers might see the same information. We’re constantly balancing the desire not to bore political junkies — god love ’em, our hits are big and growing — with repetition or redundancy, and the realization that so many other people are barely paying attention to the Senate race at this point in the season. Given how Americans perform on many current events test questions, how many Colorado readers do you think remember, or ever knew, how Michael Bennet became a Senator, when that happened, who made the decision, whom he replaced, what job he held before . . . or for that matter, whether “senator” means U.S. Senator or Colorado State Senator.

There is no laminated cheat sheet sitting above our computer keyboards that delineates how Bennet and Romanoff will be referred to in all cases. You may think it’s redundant to say “incumbent Sen.,” and technically it is; in the reality of quick-read news, it might be helpful to readers who get confused among former senators, state senators, U.S. Senators and Senate primary challengers; former U.S. Rep. McInnis and former Colo. Rep. Romanoff. We use it occasionally in case people seek or need the reminder that Bennet has the seat, Romanoff is the challenger for the party nomination. Your assessment — that it could be a Republican plant to remind Washington-haters that Bennet is the targeted incumbent– was a new one on me. I hadn’t considered it and don’t find it a compelling reason to stop. Just because people are setting traps all around us doesn’t mean we have to act like rabbits. There may be just as many voters who attribute great power and advantage to Colorado having an incumbent Senator that they feel deserves to retain power and grow in office; should we avoid the word so as not to inadvertently please that group?

To the question of “appointed.” Again, we use it when we think it’s relevant, and in this campaign, I believe it will likely be relevant fairly often. First and foremost because we are writing for a public too busy or disinterested to always remember why and how Bennet got to be a Senator. How and why Bennet got the appointment is still an issue with many Romanoff supporters. People are still fascinated by why Ritter picked Bennet. There is not an extensive track record of short-term appointees trying to hold office in an anti-establishment wave. I could go on. The Bennet campaign has already suggested we stop using it. Romanoff might love it if we used it every time. Traps waiting for rabbits.

I hope you will go through this exercise with other candidates, while remaining cognizant as you usually do that you are approaching the questions from a Democrat-defending point of view. What modifiers are Republican campaign stories getting loaded down with? Are they biased? Purely informational? Might they mean different things to campaign insiders and political news junkies vs. readers who haven’t always read the last 10 campaign stories?

I appreciate the questions and encourage you to keep exploring them.

Booth makes some good points here. It’s clearly a difficult job to write for mass audiences, and he’s right to try to provide basic, relevant information to people. I don’t want to see Booth acting like a rabbit. But if The Post wants to add redundant information, you could argue that something like, “Sen. Michael Bennet, who wants to represent Colorado in Congress,” would be better than “incumbent Senator”, to clarify things for uninformed readers.

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