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January 23, 2004

Psst.... The Press is a Player

It is an open secret in political journalism that the press is a player. But by not developing that thought, journalists maintain the "view from nowhere." This helps explain some of the familiar rituals in campaign coverage.

Originally published at, Jan. 22, 2003.

“Political stories don’t just ‘happen’ the way hailstorms do. They are artifacts of a political universe that journalism itself has helped to construct.” — Paul Taylor, former political reporter, Washington Post.

Here are seven interlocking parts in a kind of contraption political journalists operate for us every four years—campaign coverage, as we have come to dread it. Recognize any of the following?

The Gaffe: when a candidate on the campaign trail takes a pounding in the press for something that just isn’t said to the press on the campaign trail.

The Expectations Game: when a candidate “wins” by losing but doing better than the press expected, or “loses” by winning but doing worse.

The Horse Race: when the press centers its coverage around shifts in who’s ahead, based on poll results the press says are bound to shift.

The Ad Watch: when the press converts political advertisements—and the strategy behind them—into political news, and then analyzes that news to advertise its own savviness.

Inside Baseball: when the press tells the story of politics by going to insiders, the “players” who know the game because they play the game and get paid to know it.

Electability News: when the press shifts from reporting on a candidate’s bid for election in the here and now, to the chances of the bid succeeding later on.

Spin Alley: when, after a debate, the press shows up in the spin room to be spun by stand-ins and spokespeople who are gathered there to spin the press.

The contraption makes it easier to report on a presidential campaign. Also safer. With everyone using the same “instructions,” competition among journalists is reduced. Risk is spread. If the press narrative breaks down (a fairly common event), or brings twisted results (also common), if at critical moments reality and reason escape it entirely, these failures will tend to be seen uniformly across coverage. Coverage that is all made from the same contraption.

This makes it possible for journalists to stand back from the ritual, and comment on its absurdities, knowing that other journalists will continue the ritual, and thus continue the absurdities.

For example, here is Mitch Frank of Time magazine on the expectations game this year: “For a year Dean benefited from low expectations. No one took him seriously, so his rise to the top was all the more dramatic. Now it’s the opposite. If he wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s not big news. But if loses either one, even by a few votes, he leaves the door open for more stories about how Democrats aren’t totally comfortable with him.”

Now here’s Chuck Raach of USA Today on the spin room, from 2000: “The most absurd exercise in American politics always takes place in the hectic moments after a debate. It’s ‘Spin Alley,’ where talking heads dispense partisan patter in a roomful of hundreds of hectic, on-deadline journalists.”

And here’s William Powers of National Journal on the inside baseball approach: “The class of true political obsessives is tiny, and the media feel a little guilty about belonging to it, about behaving less and less like everyday people and more and more like the political operatives they cover.”

But feeling guilty and changing your behavior are two different things. Spin Alley is absurd, and called so by journalists. (See PressThink, Raze Spin Alley.) But Spin Alley is there after every big debate, and it still draws the journalists. Why is this?

The answer, I think, involves an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years. But it is never dealt with, probably because the costs of facing it head on seem larger than the light tax on honesty any open secret demands. The secret is this: pssst… the press is a player in the campaign. And even though it knows this, as everyone knows it, the professional code of the journalist contains no instructions in what the press could or should be playing for. So while the press likes being a player, it does not like being asked: what are you for?

In fact, the instructions are not to think about it too much, because to know what you are playing for would be to have a kind of agenda. And by all mainstream definition the political reporter must have no kind of agenda. The Washington Post, National Public Radio, CNN, Newsweek, the Des Moines Register, and all similar competitors, are officially (and rhetorically) committed to “no agenda” journalism, also known as the view from nowhere. So while it might be recognized that the press is a player, journalists also see an unsolvable problem if they take one more intellectual step. So they dare not.

Except that some do because it’s patent. “No longer are we just the messengers, observers on the sidelines, witch’s mirrors faithfully telling society how it looks,” said Mike O’Neill, former editor of the New York Daily News. “Now we are deeply embedded in the democratic process itself, as principal actors rather than bit players or mere audience.” He made this observation in a 1982 speech to newspaper editors.

Eight years later, Paul Taylor, once considered David Broder’s protege at the Washington Post, refined the theme. In See How They Run (1990) he wrote: “The premise of this book is that the political dialogue is failing because the leading actors in the pageant of democracy—the politicians, the press, and the voters—are bringing out the least in one another.” Paul Taylor was a superb reporter. He was also the one in 1988 who asked Gary Hart point bank about adultery during events that ended Hart’s bid.

Principal actor, leading actor. Those are revolutionary words in an observer’s mentality. But Taylor knew, like Broder and many others knew, that changes in the political system and culture at large had weakened the hand of the parties and created the modern media campaign. And the press, at key moments, had made itself a factor in events it was supposed to be merely covering. Taylor and O’Neill went one step further: not just a factor, but a key actor.

And as other players in the game realized this, they naturally began to incorporate the press into their contraptions, embedding journalists further into politics every time the contraption was run. Thus, the news stories we now expect out of Iowa wherein candidates try to influence news stories about the “expectations” in Iowa. (“Managing Primary Expectations” was the headline Time chose for its January 9th report.)

The seven artifacts on my list are part of a “political universe that journalism itself has helped to construct,” as Taylor wrote. There would be no expectations game if the press did not play in it. Inside baseball would not exist if reporters went “outside” the political class more often. Electability, the Gaffe, the Horse Race, Spin Alley, converting ads into news— each does its offense to common sense.

Yet these rituals persist because they do one thing well. They preserve the fiction of a view from nowhere, which is needed for ideological reasons (professional neutrality in journalism) and commercial ones (agenda-less news is for everyone, advertisers included). The press has power. It is an actor, of sorts. But it is also a herd of independent minds, and in this sense it is organized not to think. Spin Alley depends on that kind of thinking.

Horse race journalism does have an agenda. It maintains the political universe of the press. “Trust us, we take the view from nowhere” explains, I think, why the press can be so blind.

Tim Porter of First Draft comments on this post and Cole Campbell’s, “Innocent in Iowa”

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know where to start looking - outside the “campaign coverage contraption,” as Rosen puts it, or, in my view, outside the normal newsroom hierarchy that operates the contraption and whose decision-making is too often driven by an ingrained fear of missing the news rather than by an emboldened desire to make some news.

What does that mean? It means breaking away from the pack. It means not being the 110th reporter in New Hampshire. It means throwing out the political playbook of chestnut stories - folksy chats in coffee shops, poll stories, reaction to poll stories, etc.

This incredibly simple advice: “do something else” is, indeed, the place to start.

Terry Heaton reacts at his weblog, Donata: “This conundrum is the inevitable fruit of living within Walter Lippmann’s smokescreen of a ‘professional’ class of journalist.”

Arguing with Signposts argues with this post: “The Dean Scream was the only visual that could have come out of the Iowa caucuses that had any sort of draw. To ask television, the visual medium to end all visual media, to ignore that bit of TV gold is to retreat from the reality of the television business.”

See also, PressThink, The View From Nowhere

And… Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 23, 2004 6:55 AM