- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2008

COLUMBUS, Ohio | Only a few weeks after being cited by Sen. John McCain in his final debate with Sen. Barack Obama, Joe the Plumber became so inundated with media attention that he was forced to hire a publicist.

In keeping with the modern era, hiring a lawyer may be his next step.

The state inspector general is investigating whether state records on Joe — actually Samuel J. “Joe” Wurzelbacher — have been improperly accessed for political purposes.

Mr. Wurzelbacher’s speedy journey from anonymity to fame to martyr at the hands of the media says volumes about modern American culture and politics.

Records released last week by the administration of Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, showed that 25 separate requests were made within two days of the last McCain-Obama debate for public records on Mr. 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.

Kelly McBride at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said responsible journalists make such inquiries every day. She called it a “completely appropriate” role for reporters.

What may not have been appropriate was if social services records on Mr. 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 nongovernmental purpose.”

If 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, said Miss McBride.

“It 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.”

In the minds of the public, the potentially improper access to Mr. 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.

Reporters likely sought Mr. Wurzelbacher’s plumber’s license the day after the debate in order to find his address and go interview him.

But he didn’t have a license. Miss 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.”

Miss McBride said that in a presidential race daunting in its import, length and ubiquity, glimpses of real people affected by the issues help Americans navigate the campaigns.

“Something has changed with the audience,” she said. “The audience is really, really, really interested in small sideshows.”

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