Story location:

March 10, 2004

If the Press Digs Where it Thinks There's a Story, Then it Matters How The Press Thinks

We are coming to a point in the election story when a larger portion of the news is triggered by the decisions of journalists. There's a break in the action with the nominations set. What will the press do with this greater freedom to define and shape the campaign narrative?

A reporter I talk to often (he’s on the media beat) called me last week and asked what I thought the press would do with the upcoming “lull” in the presidential campaign: no big news anticipated, beyond Kerry’s choice of running mate and later the conventions. For much of 2003 and two months of 2004, it was clear what the press would be doing: covering the race. “So what are they going to do now?” the reporter asked. And together we speculated about it.

The reason the question arises is not a general lack of eventfulness in politics, as if reality had slowed once Kerry emerged as the winner. After the nominating season is over, and before the conventions begin, is a stretch of reporting time where lots is happening, but the triggers for news aren’t as automatic. Debates, primary elections, candidates entering and leaving, intra-party attacks— all generate news that must be covered. This differs from news that must be uncovered. That kind, sometimes called enterprise reporting, depends more on the initiative of the journalist.

Uncovering news is always an act of imagination, however. It is not just “digging,” although there is a lot to be said for just that. If the press digs into politics where it thinks there’s a story, then it matters what the press thinks. Imagination—how a journalist pictures things working—plays its part. This is especially so right about now, when a pause in the major narrative allows journalists to pick their spots, and develop more of their own ideas.

And what will the press choose to cover and uncover, or just bring more fully to life for us, during an interval in the cycle when it has maximum discretion over what is news? From my point of view, that is a political question, properly put to the makers of visibility, the amplifiers in the public square. But it is hard to get a political answer from the mainstream press, which wants to avoid taking sides in all disputes.

This stalemate is a source of tension in public culture, especially for the most politically active class as it talks back to elite journalism, which it both needs and attacks. (The bias wars reflect all this.) But until the job description changes, that tension will remain. Maybe some day journalists will be seen on all sides as players, who trigger things in the race and, yes, help shape it, but who do not cook the books for one side or another. We are not there yet.

One of my favorite acts of political reporting is a campaign book by the writer Jonathan Schell. Few people seem to know about it: History in Sherman Park (Knopf, 1987). Schell, on assignment from the New Yorker, spent the 1984 election in one home in a Milwaukee suburb, Sherman Park. “An American Family and the Reagan-Mondale Election,” is subtitle for his sojourn into the ordinary of politics.

He collected a lot of facts, conducted hundreds of interviews and went digging, as all enterprise reporters do. But the journalism part began with an image of politics that Schell had rotated in his mind. If campaigns had become targeted message delivery, why report on campaigns from the delivery side of the message? Would it not make sense—for politics, for journalism— to station a reporter on the receiving end, with the people who are the targets of all this? Schell:

In every election season, the candidates, the candidates’ supporters, the reporters, the commentators, and others in and around the campaigns pour forth their messages—speeches, political advertisements, press conferences, leaks, articles, editorials—hoping to cast light (or to obfuscate), to clarify (or to muddle), to inform, to argue, to persuade, to charm, to dazzle: to win.

I wanted to go to some particular place in America where this bombardment was arriving— where some individual voters were making up their minds whom to vote for as they went about the business of their lives. And, having put myself there, I wanted to look back at the campaigns and their interpreters— and to reflect on what was going on.

There’s the rotated image. In “our system it is the citizens who decide,” Schell writes.

So if in going to Sherman Park to talk to Gina and Bill Gapolinsky I was in one sense seeking out people at the bottom of the political hierarchy—people far from the centers of influence and power, on the receiving end of the government’s decisions—I was in another sense seeking out the people who, under our system, are at the very pinnacle of power.

In another sense is the part I especially like, because in that thought (“seeking out the people who…”) political philosophy and journalism are as close as the two disciplines get.

Sometimes when I bring up these examples, journalists and NYU students will say back to me: “Sure, it’s great that Jonathan Schell can get paid lots of money by the New Yorker, spend months on an assignment with a typical American family, and then do a book for Alfred A. Knopf; but this has nothing do with the daily political reporter who files from the campaign trail and has to cover the governor’s announcement because his boss said so and the competition will be there.” (Hmmmm.)

Which is true. Long form journalism is not a good set of instructions for daily reporting. For most journalists, the virtue of Schell’s example lies elsewhere. It’s always possible to rotate an image of politics in your mind, just to see what looks different.

For example, it would have been possible to report on the campaign stretch just completed, The Democrats Choose Their Guy, as a two-front war: here the war for the nomination, and right over there… the war between the Dean Forces (or forces unleashed by his strange candidacy) and the establishment normally in charge of the Democratic Party.

Without changing any of their rules of objectivity or newsworthiness, reporters could have filed daily from both fronts: Who’s ahead for the nomination, plus, “Who’s ahead, Dean’s Troops or the establishment forces, the strange or the normal pattern in presidential politics?” Both contests deserved plenty of news coverage. Sure, the story frames overlap, but life is like that. And we could have had two—maybe more—winners this way. (For background, this piece from the Washington Post on Dean vs. the party establishment, and my take on it.)

It’s impossible to prove the case, so I leave it as a question to readers. Suppose the image got rotated and the two-front model was put in charge of the narrative. Using it, would the campaign press have come closer, in its week by week accounts, to what actually transpired in politics on the Democratic side? Would it have done any worse with it? Which is the more accurate frame? And if you don’t mind one more puzzler… Which is the real story?

Hit the comment button if you like.

More from PressThink on the campaign press and its narratives:

Players: Toward a More Honest Job Description For the Political Press (March 9, Columbia Journalism Review).

Off The Grid Journalism. (Feb. 29)

What Time is it in Political Journalism? (Feb. 22)

Psst… The Press is a Player (Jan. 22, from

Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!
(Jan. 3, 2004)

Interesting Theory, But Journalists Don’t Do Theory, Do They? (Dec. 18, 2004)

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 10, 2004 4:40 PM