Story location:

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.

I believe the press ought to maintain its unique distinction from the broadcast media. But I worry that too often we’re all just part of the same pack. Ignoring these “story of the day” themes, I downplayed the Dean scream, for example, in my work. But how do I ignore his corresponding drop in the polls? I’ve made it a point in my coverage to note that at town hall meetings these candidates are not asked the kinds of non-policy questions they face from reporters. But if exit polls show voters turned away from Dean because of the scream (which I agree would have had no effect if not for the constant media focus) what do I do then?

I really detest horserace coverage and have for a long time. My stories, amazingly enough, actually include what the candidates are proposing for policy and make comparisons. I don’t know if horserace coverage can, or should, be completely eliminated from the newspaper. But it seems to me these campaign stories are like a recipe. You decide how much of each ingredient to include and if you go to heavy on the horserace and insider talk you’re like an apple pie with too much sugar and not enough apples.

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.

Richard A. Nangle
Worcester Telegram & Gazette
20 Franklin St.
Worcester, MA 01615-0012

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