January 29, 2004
A Campaign Reporter's Dissent
"I really detest horserace coverage," says a reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. His struggle to realize something better in his reports tells a lot about the state of campaign journalism today.
Richard A. Nangle, a reporter for the Worcester (MA) Telegram & Gazette, is a reader of PressThink and a follower of the Wilgoren Watch. He reported on the New Hampshire primary for his paper. (And before that the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.)
Nangle emailed me last week with the following letter. He said he had been reading, thinking and struggling to “put some of my own theories about political coverage into practice on the New Hampshire campaign trail.” I found his testimony compelling, and I thought it deserved a wider audience:
The more I cover this race the more I am disgusted with what I read in the major dailies. I spotted a Wilgoren story last summer that referred to Birkenstock liberals and tongue-pierced students. At a Dean event in Boston I made a point to include in my story that there were no body piercings or Birkenstocks in sight, despite the media hype.
The question I keep asking myself is how do I file a dignified report and not get beaten by the competition at the same time? And how do I present my work to a major newspaper that clearly is into the “gotcha” and horserace aspects of the campaign, which I tend to ignore? As I head back up to New Hampshire on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday I’ll be looking for a way to emphasize substance. Then I will read inside baseball stories in the major papers and wonder again whether I’m fighting a losing battle that suggests it’s time for me to find out if I can make any money playing golf.
Now there is something sad here, I think. This is a reporter who aspires to work in a larger venue, and he would like to admire the more experienced journalists in the national press. But he cannot. Nangle sees horse race coverage and the inside baseball approach as “undignified” and even detestable. Yet he may be hurting himself by not following the crowd, since included in that crowd are the editors who might hire him at a later stage. Sad, isn’t it?
Nangle’s questions deserve a closer look. I don’t think it’s possible to “ignore” a swift and surprising drop in the polls by a major candidate like Howard Dean. That must be reported. But it is possible to avoid the reification of polling. (Reification: to treat an abstraction as if it had concrete or material existence.) It’s also possible to place on an equal plane other indicators.
For example, why is it reported as an after-thought—or not reported at all—that Dean currently leads John Kerry in delegates won, 113 to 94, due to the elected officials (or super-delegates) pledged to support him? As an indicator, it’s at least as “real” as the latest polling figures, or the ethereal factor of momentum— both of which are routinely reported on.
Nangle asks: “how do I file a dignified report and not get beaten by the competition at the same time?” This exposes the strange meaning of competition in the press tribe. Ordinarily competition is praised because it makes for multiple approaches, diverse outcomes, contending ideas. But in political journalism, “competition” means that all who compete take the same approach. As I argued here, the conventions of campaign coverage tend to reduce competition and spread risk.
By breaking with those conventions—that is, by actually competing with a different idea—Nangle must take a risk that others in the press pack can avoid. (Which suggests to me that there ought to be webloggers willing to “adopt”—and track the reporting of—journalists who ignore the pack pressures, and take a different approach.)
The Dean Scream presents a puzzle. Here the press can magnify an event, and then report on the consequences of this enlargement as if were something the event alone triggered. Those consequences are real, not fictive, and the candidate has real responsibility for them— but so too does the press. Nonetheless, through simple tricks of language, this dual responsibility can disappear.
Here is what CNN reported last weeK: “On Tuesday, Dean found himself having to explain his bellowing, guttural response of the night before at a post-election Iowa rally.” The statement is true. But how did Dean “find himself” in such a position? He knew reporters would ask about it at every turn. Perhaps this is part of what Nangle detests about the rituals of campaign reporting— the built-in element of intellectual dishonesty.
Here is the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s report the day before the New Hampshire vote: “Traversing the country lanes that crisscross this New England state, stopping at village after village in pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. John Kerry clings to the title of fighter and champion of the ordinary citizen, but there is one label he assiduously seeks to avoid— frontrunner.” As if it were within Kerry’s ability to “avoid” a labeling act the press itself undertakes.
And here is what he was afraid of, in a passage from Mark Jurkowitz of the Boston Globe after the vote:
Prior to last week’s surprise Iowa caucus results, some commentators were floating the idea that former governor Howard Dean of Vermont was inexorably heading for his party’s nomination. Last night, when a consensus emerged that Kerry had a decisive win in the Granite State, the media pendulum started swinging toward anointing him the new leader of the pack… But in a story on last night’s NBC newscast, correspondent Kelly O’Donnell foreshadowed Kerry’s new status, saying “success attracts a closer look” and the senator may now be “the next target.”
There is something almost nauseating about this cycle, when journalists can both predict the next turn in it and go on to excute that turn. I give three cheers to Richard Nangle for dissenting from the whole business. In an odd way, he is fighting for freedom of the press— against the press.
Got some suggestions for Nangle? Hit the comment button and speak.
Tom Mangan of Prints the Chaff has comments on this post: “reporters are on the road hundreds or thousands of miles from the home newsroom, so the boss can’t keep an eye on ‘em. The only way to assure the boss that they’re on the job is to report the same thing everybody else reports. Nothing changes until editors start telling their boys & girls on the bus: I don’t want anything I can get off the wire.”
Tim Porter at First Draft also comments: “The elephant in this press room is the unrelenting pressure on reporters—especially those from smaller news organizations—from both peers and editors to produce at least the same story as everyone else.”
Listen here to an one hour radio program about objectivity in journalism, its history, nature and consequences, from WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio. Host: Gretchen Helfrich. Guests: Jay Rosen and sociologist Michael Schudson.
Posted by Jay Rosen at January 29, 2004 12:38 AM Print
The only advice I have for him is to keep doing what he's doing. He's doing the right thing. Perhaps hiring editors at The New York Times might not think so, but honestly, even in the business a lot of people question their judgment these days.
Give us a break! Please. We beg you.
"Nangle asks: "how do I file a dignified report and not get beaten by the competition at the same time?" This exposes the strange meaning of competition in the press tribe. Ordinarily competition is praised because it makes for multiple approaches, diverse outcomes, contending ideas. But in political journalism, "competition" means that all who compete take the same approach. As I argued here, the conventions of campaign coverage tend to reduce competition and spread risk."
The press is a special interest. Just like any other business. Looking to government for something for nothing. That is, they want scandal, lies, controversy, etc. And when they get this they use it to make money and advance their careers. Why is this so hard for you to grasp?
Citizens, that is you, me and the members of the media like everyone else, have to use our own judgement drawn from every source to form our opinions and decisions. The "press" or the media is every bit mendacious, or wonderful, as George W. Bush or Saddam Hussein. Deal with it!
Frankly your navel gazing is both embarrassing and hilarious.
Grow up dude.
Posted by: Erick at January 29, 2004 8:52 AM | Permalink
Mr. Nagle: Stop focusing on the press and focus on the story. By working so hard to say you saw no Birkenstocks, you are exhibiting an agenda just as much as those you accuse of having an agenda by observing the Birkenstocks.
Posted by: Jeff Jarvis at January 29, 2004 9:55 AM | Permalink
Nangle is trying to do precisely what's needed, in particular by considering the press hive mind an actor on the campaign year stage, and by making honest, detailed appraisals of what he sees. Bravo!
Erick's "point" is relevant only in that -- sure, while, at the end of the day, citizens have to call their own shots, individual members of the press can make that job easier or harder depending on how they report, or ignore, the invisible hand of the press of which they are a part.
One candidate who will never be "the next target" is George W. Bush. In recent years, these media feeding frenzies like the "Dean Scream" firestorm have been reserved exclusively for Democrats. (Dan Quayle is the only Republican I can think of who was ever targeted by a media feeding frenzy, and that's more than a decade ago. He's probably the exception that proves the rule.)
Just a couple of days ago, Bush made an incredibly bizarre statement at a press conference claiming that during the runup to the war, Saddam refused to let U.N. inspectors into Iraq, a statement completely at odds with reality. And not only that--this is the second time he's made this bizarre claim. So why is there no media feeding frenzy, with the TV outlets playing the video of this quote over, and over, and over, and over again, accompanied by commentators questioning his sanity, questioning whether or not he's back on the booze, questioning whether or not he just blew the election?
I mean, what's more outrageous, a candidate giving an emotional but rather unremarkable pep talk to his volunteers on primary night--I've seen dozens of candidates give similar speeches over the years, including presidential candidates--or a candidate who makes a claim, twice, that is simply not supported by reality?
So, if not Bush, who and what will be the focus of the next media feeding frenzy? I predict it'll be John Kerry's hair.
Posted by: monchie b. monchum at January 29, 2004 10:19 AM | Permalink
Competition, illustrated: An editor whose reporters cover the campaign is scanning the Associated Press wire, sees a fact/quote/observation not in his reporters' reporting and says, "why don't we have this?" When, in fact, as a subscriber to the wire service, we *do* have it.
The reporter has to be able to answer to his boss for not reporting the same thing everybody else is reporting ... it seems absurd, but editors look at the overall coverage to judge the credibility of their own. Hence the sameness of the coverage.
Posted by: tom mangan at January 29, 2004 10:29 AM | Permalink
Hi Jay ...
I agree with Jeff -- the key for a reporter is to break away from the pack, to use his head and his heart, but this is easier for us to say than for a reporter, especially one from a smaller newspaper, to do given the risk-adverse nature of newsrooms and assigning editors whose, as I wrote in a post the other day, "decision-making is too often driven by an ingrained fear of missing the news rather than by an emboldened desire to make some news."
Also, read the Circuits story today about technology and the polticial press corps. Institutionally, this group already suffers from attention deficit disorder, so equipping them with a sack of digital gadgetry that enables -- and compels -- them to sift the political sands into finer and finer granules at a time when the public needs a seascape is like holding an A.A. meeting in a bar.
I've got more on this on First Draft today.
Posted by: Tim Porter at January 29, 2004 12:14 PM | Permalink
I worked with Rich Nangle a dozen years or so ago in CT. He didn't take himself quite so seriously then. Such melancholy! The horror of covering a presidential campaign! Personally, the scream I want to emit after reading these latest examples of breathtaking self-absorption would make Howard Dean's sound like the contented cooing of a well-fed 6 month old.
Posted by: Rob Fredericks at January 29, 2004 1:02 PM | Permalink
Erick, Rob: You do recognize the site you're on is devoted to media self-examination, right? Your comments are like complaining that everyone on Amazon.Com is talking about books.
Posted by: Rogers Cadenhead at January 29, 2004 1:43 PM | Permalink
He smugly notes in his report that there were no Birkenstocks in evidence at a Dean event. In Boston. In January. Point made!
Posted by: Meredith at January 29, 2004 1:51 PM | Permalink
Rogers: I'm with Rob on this. There's self-examination and then there's self-absorption. Tim's right that it's not easy being beamed down from the mother ship; I've been there. I will always remember sitting on the floor of a crappy Manchester motel during the primary after sending my column into the SF Examiner by mojo wire and having the ME (may he rest in peace) complain that I wasn't covering what the other people were covering. I was dejected and depressed. But you know what I did soon after that? I quit. Moved to New York. Got better jobs, more money, more power, more autonomy. The point of that very self-absorbed sentence is only that every reporter can be his own editor if he writes and reports the story well enough and argues for it passionately enough. Complaining will get you nowhere but onto the lobster shift. Following the pack will get you nowhere but in a crowd.
Posted by: Jeff Jarvis at January 29, 2004 3:41 PM | Permalink
Remember that 1948 photograph of Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium the day he "bowed out" of baseball? It's a wonderful symbol of how the best journalists are rewarded for breaking out of the pack. The picture is shot from behind Ruth, offering a glimpse of what the Babe saw: a panorama of fans, respectful teammates -- and a group of other news photographers huddled together trying to get "the shot" from the front.
The photo from behind, by Nat Fein, won the Pulitzer Prize.
This isn't to suggest that all election reporters should suddenly "surge" to the spot behind the podium where sign-waving union members usually stand. But it's a reminder that the profession does, in fact, reward journalists who follow their own drummer from time to time.
Dean's scream was a story. So, perhaps, are other moments of unscripted humanity exhibited by the candidates -- like bursts of compassion and patience, or misunderstanding and irritability, they exhibit when mixing with crowds. I've learned more about the candidates from watching the open-mic aftermath of stump speeches on C-SPAN than from just about any other venue.
Look for the story, instead of expecting it to wash over you.
Posted by: Perry Parks at January 29, 2004 4:07 PM | Permalink
Rogers - That is right. Of course we are looking at ourselves - and hoping to improve.
Erick said this: The press is a special interest. Just like any other business. Looking to government for something for nothing. That is, they want scandal, lies, controversy, etc. And when they get this they use it to make money and advance their careers. Why is this so hard for you to grasp?
He said this despite one reporter making it clear that he is not after any of these things. A good many of us do not aspire to work at a paper such as the NYT because of such groupthink (and many other reasons).
I find myself in the same boat as Nagler, though not in relation to political coverage. I detest where some of our national media has gone, though the good gets overlooked often as well.
Jeff Jarvis also says this and I think he's fooling himself.
--> And while you were downplaying the Dean Scream, everyone I know -- not in the press -- was indeed concentrating on it.
You miss the point that many of us - but only if we were paying attention two days hence - now know the story to be not quite what it claimed to be. That is, that context was absent.
I do agree with him that by making a point of saying the birkenstock and piercings were not in evidence is also an agenda. Be yourself isn't an answer. Because if he was he would be a poor blogger instead. :)
Posted by: Temple Stark at January 29, 2004 4:25 PM | Permalink
Thanks for these comments. I think Nangle deserves to be applauded just for going against dull conventions, in the degree that he could and did. To me, it is a very simple virtue, for which we are not going to award medals, but we might appreciate it nonetheless.
Perry writes: "I've learned more about the candidates from watching the open-mic aftermath of stump speeches on C-SPAN than from just about any other venue." This is something I noticed too. It's very informative. But isn't that a different meaning of being informed about a candidate?
Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 29, 2004 5:11 PM | Permalink
First off, I don't remember a Rob Fredericks. Is that your real name? Second, the Dean rally was in the summer. Lots of opportunity for Birkenstocks. I saw plenty of tongue-piercings at the Warped Tour, not at Dean. For those who think I sound self-absorbed or too serious, I think newspaper reporting is a serious business. We have an obligation to take it seriously and protect it from those who would feather their own nests to its detriment. Otherwise, circulation will continue to drop and newspapers will continue to a slow death. I don't think we'd be a better society for that. Are there people who actually like horse race coverage? I'd like to hear from them.
Posted by: RNangle at January 29, 2004 5:35 PM | Permalink
Rich, we worked together at The Bridgeport Post in the late 80s. You were a good guy with a reputation as a whiner who covered a small town in the Naugatuck Valley and I was a metro reporter. I'm now an editor in NY. I'd think an introspective, serious-minded reporter such as yourself would have a better memory, but recalling a couple parties at your apartment on Olive Street (the Hagler-Leonard fight comes to mind), I'm not surprised that your recollections are hazy. Cheers dude.
Posted by: Rob Fredericks at January 29, 2004 5:52 PM | Permalink
Given the nature of the small town I've forgiven myself for whining.
Posted by: RNangle at January 29, 2004 6:40 PM | Permalink
Wow, I'm a bit stunned at the self-absorbed vitriol from Erich, Rob, and Jeff. Let's see, if someone aspires to change aspects of a profession that these men have made it big in, they are just a whiner. Good call! Let me know where y'all have 'made it' so I know where NOT to look for innovation in this business. Journalism is perfect, of course, or as good as it could ever be, so any self examination on that score is navel gazing.
Wake up gentleman. There is a new world in the making. No, not love beads and piercings. No, not weblogs taking over the world and journalism melting away. Just some new ways of getting information, some better ways of sharing and filtering information, that are starting to change the environment in which journalism functions.
On covering/not covering the scream: the scandal is not that it was covered, but that amidst all the saturation no one reported beneath the surface during the critical week before NH. See this article http://abclocal.go.com/wjrt/news/012904_NW_r2_group_deanscream.html at CBS for the neglected story, which is what needed to get out. Any reporter who had interviewed people who were in the room, or was familiar with the way such things are miked, could have pursued this story. Probably a few did, but were stymied by the difficulties discussed above.
Quick note: that's probably the most heated and nasty I've gotten in a post, and a bit reckless, for example, to tar three previous posters with the same broad brush, Jeff, for example, just because he said he agreed with Rob...
So, I'm sorry for the heat, & any unfair hits I dished out. Just got incensed there. I look forward to any feedback on the actual arguments I made.
Seems the horse race that matters isn't within the subjects being covered, but among those covering them.
Posted by: Doc Searls at January 30, 2004 9:58 AM | Permalink
Obviously, horse-race journalism can be taken too far, but if we accept that the job of the reporter covering a campaign is to tell her readers *what is happenning*, covering a political race *as* a race does not seem out of line to me.
When the voters themselves say that the issue differences between the candidates are negligible, that what is swaying their votes is personality and electability, covering primarily those aspects (which prominently includes fundraising, or you're not giving readers an accurate picture) is not superficial or a disservice, but obligatory.
Why don't issues get reported enough in a campaign? Perhaps it's because campaign planks are worth less than the paper they're written on. Candidates routinely change them twice or three times in the course of a primary, then change again once they get into the general election, then once again when they're elected. They are almost worthless when it comes to understanding the dynamics of a political campaign.
What does a politician "stand for"? Getting elected! To cover a campaign as though that's not the case may feel good, but doesn't do journalist's first job -- to tell her readers what's really happenning.
Posted by: Kevin B. O'Reilly at January 30, 2004 12:40 PM | Permalink
Should it be called horse race or a rat race?
"There is something almost nauseating about this cycle," Jay wrote.
Speaking as a consumer of press output rather than a producer, I concur. Go back and read Mr. Campbell's fine words of a few days ago here on this blog. I'd say Mr. Nangle is perhaps in danger of "non-mainstreaming" himself, if that's a word, but he's also refusing to be part of the herd Mr. Campbell spoke of, and I commend him for it.
Posted by: Linkmeister at January 30, 2004 7:58 PM | Permalink
Reading this article about Nangle and his distaste for "horserace" reporting, along with the habit of the press to make news, then report as if it was an independently-occurring event, caused me to reflect on my own ingrained thought habits with regard to news.
I have been a Dean supporter for quite some time, for reasons similar to many other Dean supporters. The first time I saw the "Dean Scream," I didn't make much of it. Then, after watching the talking heads endlessly replay it and inform me (from their bully pulpit of supposed expertise) that it was a critical flaw in my candidate, I unconsciously began to wonder whether I had missed the boat by not considering it evidence of a damning character flaw.
Eventually, after the NH defeat of Dean, I became increasingly angry at how the media had overplayed the scream, and can't help but wonder whether things would have been different if the "scream" had simply floated off into the ether like most of the other speeches.
Then, when Kerry took the lead, I began to hunger for a "make up" scandal -- some overreaction to a trumped-up Kerry blunder that will level the playing field and put the two candidates back on the same footing.
In this hope, however, there is something terribly wrong.
Deep in my heart, I am now essentially hoping that the media will give my candidate back the votes that I feel were taken unjustly. But honestly, why should I (or any other voter) be in a position of hoping that the "benevolent" media will dispense the "justice" that I think is due my candidate? Is Diane Sawyer's mea culpa and Tim Russert's dedication of Sunday's "Meet the Press" (e.g. free advertising) sufficient? What standards should prevail in determining these questions? And doesn't the hope that Kerry will receive similarly unfair treatment just drag me -- an honest supporter of a particular candidate -- more deeply into the morass?
The media holds incredible power, and yet it is legally immune from a set of ethics imposed by the government. Overall, this is a good thing. However, the news profession, like other professions that sit in a position of power and trust, should adhere to a code that is more stringent than simply avoiding "making up" news.
I'm afraid I don't have an answer.
However, it is truly disspiriting to have issues of such importance (presidential nominations) hinging in significant part on the caprice of the press.
Posted by: John at January 31, 2004 12:52 AM | Permalink
MSMBC has a horse race graphic with little men on horses they move along on the racetrack as they wax and handicap. Was this the same ones who built a copy of Spider Hole and lay down in it in the studio?
Posted by: Ronald Schmidt at January 31, 2004 3:58 AM | Permalink
Count on Doc to have the pithiest and truest statement.
Posted by: Jeff Jarvis at January 31, 2004 11:31 PM | Permalink