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March 9, 2004

Players: Toward a More Honest Job Description For the Political Press

Given all the different roles the press has taken on since 1960, it's time to retire the old job description for the campaign press, and write one more honest, more nuanced, more effective— more true. My essay from the new CJR.

Originally published in Columbia Journalism Review, March/April, 2004.

What is the proper job description for a journalist during campaign season? You don’t find much discussion about it. Whether the press is doing its job consumes our attention, as it should. But we cannot know how well the press is doing unless we know—and sort of agree—on the job to be done. I am not sure we do.

I know this: The standard job description needs work. It does not point to all the tasks the press has accumulated since 1960, when the modern media campaign began. Horse race handicapper is not in there, but the press does it. (And not very well, either.) Press language needs to stay current, not only with trends “out there” in the world, but with roles and responsibilities journalists themselves have taken on—sometimes without announcing why, or thinking it through fully.

David Shaw writes in the Los Angeles Times: “When political journalists predict the future, their predictions often seem to eclipse — and at times substitute for — the reporting they’re supposed to be based on. Worse, those predictions can become self-fulfilling prophesies. Look at the coverage of Howard Dean’s post-caucus speech in Iowa.”

I would go further than Shaw. There are ethical reasons for leaving the future to itself, for not turning it into a probability statement or a handicappers’ ball in hopes of a generating more news buzz today. There is no bigger cliché in journalism than “time will tell,” but under the cliché is a moral proposition: don’t play god, don’t pre-empt the future.

Whenever we re-describe what journalists do new problems arise in what they should be doing—and perhaps quit doing. New questions of accountability spring up. A conventional, common sense description of the job during campaign season would look like this:

That’s how you cover a campaign, right?

Right. Except that more is involved when the press gets going; and this has been known for some time. “Somebody had to prune the field, to ‘get rid of the funny ones,’ as one 1988 campaign manager put it.” Paul Taylor, formerly of the Washington Post, wrote that in his book, See How They Run (1990). “With the party bosses out of the equation, there was a huge vacuum at the front end of the process. Who would screen the field? The assignment fell to the press — there was no one else.”

Screening the field is rather different from covering it. If the press actually announced, “once again, we’ll be screening the field for you,” it might have to say how, why, when. It might have to defend its practices, or at least explain them in terms the public can grasp. There are costs to that. There are costs to letting it slide too.

Taylor reflected on those costs after years on the reporters’ bus for the Post. He noted that with the decline of the political parties as screeners with the final say, “journalists have increasingly become players in a political contest in which they also serve as observers, commentators and referees.” One of the ways they influence things, he said, is through a “journalistic master narrative built around two principal story lines: the search for a candidates character flaws, and the depiction of the campaign as a horse race.”

This helps explain why the Dean Scream grew to such proportions as a news event from January 20th on. Yes, the scream really happened, and it really did turn people off. It is not implausible to say it crystallized public doubts about Dean, for some. But we also know that the master narrative favors a search for the candidate’s character flaws. The Scream said to reporters: search over, flaw found.

Beyond screening the field and maintaining a master narrative, there are other recognizable tasks not in the official description:

Then there’s everything the press does during those strange episodes that have come to be called frenzies. Here the news cycle feeds on itself, overwhelming all other news, and bringing a sense of siege or crisis to the stricken one’s camp. (The scream aired 700 times in the week after Dean released it.) Producing frenzies isn’t an official part of the job. But it happens and journalists know they are involved.

In fact they tell us. Around the time of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Tim Russert, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said that when he and his colleagues focus relentlessly on a single story, “we may find ourselves driving the story.” Event driver is not in the job description, either. It happens.

The people the national press assigns to campaign coverage are smart and able, and they work extremely hard. The experienced ones know a great deal about politics, the people in it, and what drives them. It is inconceivable that reporters at this level would fail to notice there are times (like the news frenzy) when, without plan or purpose, the press is “causing” things to happen. And there are other times (such as the “expectations game”) when journalists are fatally mixed up in the action, which would not be happening this way without them.

Comparing the declared and de-facto roles of the press, E.J. Dionne, columnist for the Washington Post and a student of American politics, put it this way:

No one elected the press, yet the press is now an intimate part of everything having to do with elections. The press is not there to make political decisions, yet everything the press does helps shape those decisions. The press does not exist to represent the citizenry, yet in fact reporters do believe they represent citizens (or at least their interests) when they probe and question and analyze and pontificate.

Now if journalists know all that—and by the evidence in these quotations they do—then they also know their professional codes don’t cover these other roles the press has assumed. The profession has an observer’s code, a watchdog’s code, possibly a critic’s code, but nothing beyond that.

What does the code book say about the proper way to handle yourself in a frenzy? It is silent, stumped. What do newsroom codes say about the expectations game and how journalists should play it, so that citizens benefit? They say nothing. If all of a sudden you realize you are driving an event, what should the wise, responsible and public-spirited journalist do? The codes don’t know.

So then what?

Political journalists need a new description that recognizes their status as players in a contest they also report and comment upon. I understand why the press is reluctant to say it this way— a player. Yet Shaw, Taylor, Dionne, Russert and many others of sound reputation have said just that over the years. The public knows it too. Conventional wisdom gets beaten up a lot, but journalists actually need wise conventions if, collectively, they’re going to do a good job.

It’s time to rip up the old job description for the campaign press, and write one that’s more honest, more nuanced, more effective—and more real.


Posted by Jay Rosen at March 9, 2004 2:30 PM