March 20, 2004
Die, Strategy News
It's a bankrupt form. It serves no clear purpose. There is no civic rationale for it. My newspaper's lead story today, about "an aggressive and precise 90-day media strategy to define Senator John Kerry," is a sad case in point.
The rant is not usually my style. But I have had enough with “strategy coverage” in the campaign press. I think it’s a bankrupt form. It serves no clear purpose, has no sensible rationale. The journalists who offer us strategy news do not know what public service they are providing, why they are providing it, for whom it is intended, or how we are supposed to use this strange variety of news. And they cannot explain what would be lost if the entire genre, the strategy story, just died, from being too pathetic for too long.
Die, strategy news. Do it this year, 2004. And we’ll dance the dance of real politics on your grave.
Journalists can think of something better to do in five minutes, and it will be better for them when they do. This isn’t a reaction to a particular act of journalism (although I do have one to discuss, inflicted on me this morning). This is a rant about a form of reporting, a formula. It concocts news stories by presenting a look “inside” the calculations of the candidates, including fresh speculation about whether the strategy might work. This almost always involves political advertising and the buying of it, which we are told about in detail. But why are we told about it?
If only a team of American journalists was forced to sit in a room for a week and explain to a jury of citizens why they invented this bizarre form of information, what they thought they were doing when they routinized it in political coverage, and why—exactly why—it is an urgent matter that you, the American voter, know a lot about the poll-tested manipulations headed your way that may or may not, according to other polls, work on enough other American voters out there, (the soft-headed ones, people not reading these strategy stories) so as to offset or possibly overcome the same, but different poll-tested manipulations also headed your way from the other side, the opposite party, which after all (did you know any of this?) has a strategy as well, but perhaps does not have enough money to make it work on enough voters (even though the soft headed ones are out there, the polls show it) unless the other party can raise more money for more poll-tested manipulations of the American voter, from you: the American voter.
If our journalists had to explain all this to a jury of their peers, the peers out there beyond journalism, the citizens, it might be quite hard for them, but an interesting thing to watch. My question to the press team would be: What is a strategy story trying to be good at, and why is that a good worth aiming for in journalism?
Among cases submitted for an explanation by the press I would try to have placed this morning’s lead story in the New York Times. According to the editors, the single most important thing for me, a Times subscriber, to know about today, in a world exploding with reality, is: “90-Day Media Strategy by Bush’s Aides to Define Kerry.” By Jim Rutenberg, writing out of Washington on March 19. (His beat is the media angle on the campaign.) Some prose from it:
The aides said the strategy was planned weeks ago in coordination with Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s chief political aide, while Mr. Kerry was battling for his party’s nomination.
Wow. Weeks ago this thing was planned. Must be pretty carefully thought out.
“It’s easiest to define somebody when they’re ill-defined, and John Kerry’s ill-defined.”
No one’s defined him yet? That’s news. But what about all the Kerry news before this news? Acres of it, and he’s still ill-defined?
The Bush aides pronounce their efforts a success so far, and point to polls showing that Mr. Kerry’s ratings are dropping while Mr. Bush’s are rising, a huge relief to a campaign that just a couple of weeks ago was criticized even by some Republicans as appearing flat-footed.
Huge relief, huh? Do I exhale at this point?
Calling the Bush campaign’s depictions of their candidate “distortions,” Mr. Kerry’s strategists said the labels would not stick.
Ah, ha… so Kerry actually thinks Bush’s ads distort him. He doesn’t like them one bit!
Bush campaign officials said they were almost certain which themes they would be striking and what sorts of advertisements they would be showing at just about any given moment between now and June, even while acknowledging their plans could change on a dime.
These guys are pros. They have a great plan, but if they have to abandon it, they’re great improvisers too. No wonder they own politics. They’re so good at it.
Mr. Kerry’s campaign acknowledges that he is nowhere near as well-known as is Mr. Bush.
So true. When you’re talking about the President of the United States, you are talking about a pretty well known guy.
“We’re going to fight back when we need to fight back,” Mr. Shrum said, adding he did not believe the Bush campaign was as planned out as the Republicans claimed.
So some people are saying the Bush plan is really, really carefully planned out— super carefully, that’s what I’m hearing. But here’s some Kerry guy saying, nope, not so carefully planned after all. Now that Jim Rutenberg has revealed it, the entire nation can have that debate.
Todd Gitlin once wrote that strategy coverage invited readers and voters to become “cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement.” He had a point with that phrase.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson (bio) says that strategy coverage is identified by five features: 1.) winning and losing are the central plot device, 2.) metaphors of war, competitive sports and game theory are prevalent in the account, 3.) politics is assessed as theatre, with performers, critics and audiences, 4.) performance, style, appearance, and “perceptions” of the candidate are commonly examined, 5.) opinion polls and the candidate’s standing in them are a baseline reality.
In The Press Effect (Oxford, 2002) Jamieson and Paul Waldman observe that reporters “tend to be much more comfortable making evaluative strategic statements than evaluative statements about policy.” This, I believe, is the key to understanding the takeover—and yes, there was a shift—in campaign news to the strategy frame.
I would not say it’s their motivation (although some would) but it is definitely a consequence of their method: journalists doing strategy stories get to be more evaluative, more like critics at a performance. They can bring in more knowledge on their own authority, and show how well they understand the game. They are “allowed” more room by their own codes.
These are the seductions of the form, which gets the journalist to identify, not necessarily with the candidate, but with the theatre of strategy itself, where there is an audience of cognoscenti, and the players discuss with that audience the bamboozlement of another, larger audience—the voters—who are outside the theatre, a gullible “them,” not a savvy us.
“[Kerry] peels like an onion,” said an associate of Mr. Bush. “People aren’t like, `I really believe in this guy and I’m not willing to accept that information.’ They accept it very easily.”
A strategy story, by its angle of vision, invites you into that split-level world, where experts at manipulating it talk about the electorate. And so by the conventions of the genre you are to drop your membership in the public to see how the pros go to work on the public.
Read it. That’s what Jim Rutenberg’s article this morning wants me to do. But why would I want to do that?
On another matter involving Rutenberg’s front-page, lead story Saturday, these quotes…
“The goal is right now,” said a Bush adviser, “while he’s weak, while they’re financially struggling, to strip him of all the good that somehow in my opinion erroneously got attached to him.”
…are clear violations of the New York Times new policy on confidential sources, which went into effect March 1. It reads, in part:
The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy. When we use such sources, we accept an obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation as much as we can supply to let a reader know whether the sources have a clear point of view on the issue under discussion.
There are other exceptions, too. But none of them applies to Bush advisors taking swipes—anonymously—at John Kerry.
Jeff Jarvis comments on this post. Strategy news, he says, “comes out of the press’s desire to seem inside and ahead even if it’s not substance they’re reporting.”
Reading A1, a nifty weblog about the front page of the Times, comments on this post: Strategy and Policy.
Campaign Desk, the Columbia Journalism Review’s weblog, comments on the same Jim Rutenberg article and its violations of the New York Times policy on anonymous sourcing.
Posted by Jay Rosen at March 20, 2004 10:18 PM Print
Thanks for this post, Jay. I wrote about the Rutenberg article on my blog yesterday, too, before I saw your piece—also wrote about the "strategy" article from Richard Stevenson and Adam Nagourney that defaced Wednesday's front page. Bad enough to get one of these, but two in the space of four days?
That's an excellent piece, Jay, and long overdue. As Michael says on Reading A1, the Times really is reporting little else about the campaign other than this fake insider crap. For my part, I repeat a question I asked here a few months ago: why is it "news" when one candidate's operatives say their opponent is flawed? That's what they are supposed to say and it ill behooves a good newspaper to report this crap.
Your comment about the use of anonymous sources is right on the money. And this article isn't an exception. As I noted 12 days ago on my fitful Times blog, Hellsheet, Elisabeth Bumiller didn't let the ink dry on the new sources policy before filing a highly predictable hit piece that had not a single identifiable source, even though the subject was the same as Rutenberg's: Bush operatives whack Kerry.
I try to teach my journalism students responsibility. But it's tough when this level of crap appears in what is ostensibly the best newspaper in the country.
Posted by: Roger Karraker at March 21, 2004 9:36 PM | Permalink
I didn't know it had a name, I just thought it was part of the current "Bush is too mean" news cycle or an excuse to portray the Bush Campaign as an attack machine. Either way it's not worthy of a major newspaper.
You didn't say anything about the story about 10 fleece pullovers delivered to the Bush-Cheney campaign which turned out to have been made in Myanmar. Is nothing too petty?
Your comments are richly deserved. I'm certainly going to link to this.
Posted by: AST at March 21, 2004 9:57 PM | Permalink
I am neither journalist nor blogger. I am merely citizen and consumer of news – perhaps a bit more of a news & politics junky than most – and I have to say what a unequivocal godsend the internet and e-papers are for similarly situated junkies.
A month or two ago, I discovered PressThink, and through it, the parallel quasi-insider world of thumb-sucks & navel-gazing and public journalism that have been hidden in plain sight. Fascinating. And educational. There is no doubt I am now a better, more discriminate consumer of news.
That said: newly-learned terms-of-art aside, I still differentiate between ‘hard news’, ‘soft news’ and ‘filler’.
My time is valuable and reading anything carries the opportunity cost of not having time to read something else, so ‘firm grasp of the obvious’ pieces (somewhere between ‘soft news’ and ‘filler’ by my calculus), like the Rutenberg piece don’t demand attention beyond the first three grafs. Until I saw his piece excoriated, here at PressThink, that is. Then I read it.
The problem I have with ‘strategy pieces’ is not that they have little mass for the amount of space they occupy; rather, they seem to be one-offs, and the reporter does not stay with the story going deeper all-the-while. Rutenberg turned up a couple of points I thought were insightful and unordinary and should be pursued, but they won’t be – and I think at least part of that non-pursuit is systemic.
My experience & impression of ‘media reporters’ is not very positive. Their whole beat is ‘inside baseball’, but their coverage is shallower than a puddle in a parking lot and their attention-span is of the kindergarten profile.
Rutenberg turned up (paraphrasing) Rove, et.al. think Kerry’s support is light on stiction and BushCo is planning to peel layers of it away. While that is not an earthshaking realisation, it does show somebody at BushCo has higher-level analytical skills and is confident enough in their plan to make ‘the plan’ public. That is both new and news, but …
While I am not going to wholeheartedly agree that Rutenberg’s piece is useless, without in-depth and regular followup, it is close.
From the provinces, and from a simple consumer, that is how I see it.
Finally, a related question for you pros: It would make sense for whoever assigns work at NYT to take Rutenberg’s ‘new & news’ and give it to Elisabeth Bumiller and say, ‘Give me 3,000 words on this twice a month.’
Something like that stands a real chance of being valuable, I’d think. Does that happen?
Posted by: diderot at March 22, 2004 2:20 PM | Permalink
While I think the typical "strategy story" is worthless, I'm surprised you're so opposed to the genre, which holds great potential for subverting press narratives. I was particulary struck by characteristic #3 in Kathleen Hall Jamieson's description of the form: "politics is assessed as theatre, with performers, critics and audiences."
Sounds like a useful frame every now and then, and to decry it is to ignore the fact that as much as we might wish otherwise, politics are practiced as theater (as opposed to politicized theater), aestheticized into allegorical performances that are inherently and irredeemably conservative. Not just in terms of policy, but in fundamental worldview.
Who better to call it what it is -- unimaginative, manipulative junk -- than a theater critic? Let's release the hounds: Send theater writers to do the jobs political reporters are failing to perform, and while we're at it, sic guys like Rutenberg on off-off-Broadway. Perhaps the politco journos will liven up the arts pages with lots of anon. sources, leaks, and "strategy stories."
Posted by: Jeff Sharlet at March 24, 2004 1:04 AM | Permalink
I'm a little late to this thread, but I think it's important to note that while Jay's criticism of the New York Times story's emphasis is valid, it's an overstatement to argue that journalists should simply ignore campaigns' strategies and tactics for winning elections.
No right-thinking person believes that style over substance is a good way to run a democracy, but there is a hierarchy of responsibility in terms of who should be providing substance in political discourse.
I would argue that those with the primary, overriding, almost definitional responsibility to ensure substance in political races are the candidates themselves and their campaigns. And yet, as we observe time and again, it seems that the majority of campaign resources in both money and people hours goes toward the "strategy" of winning elections -- attacking the opponent, manipulating demographic groups based on polling data, "shaping" a message that panders to perceived swing voters, etc.
The news media's responsibilty as a referee in political campaigns is two-fold. Its primary responsibility, as I think Jay would agree, is to ensure that substantive issues are addressed -- whether candidates want to address them or not. The news media clearly do not do enough of this work, both because it's harder to get people to address substance and because it's harder to make the stuff interesting for readers and viewers. More would be better.
But a secondary obligation of journalists is to present the truth of the campaigns as they're being run. To pretend -- through omission -- that the Bush campaign didn't spend millions of dollars to shape or alter the public's perception of John Kerry is ignore the truth of how campaigns are conducted. To imply -- by ignoring -- that intensive advertising doesn't influence public opinion is naive and misrepresentative. And to not hold candidates accountable for their own misplaced priorities -- by refusing to point them out -- is irresponsible.
For journalists to focus solely on issues as candidates sling mud at one another for seven months would be like a weatherman saying that there might be some sun today without noting the 90 percent chance of rain. Most of us don't want the rain, but we have to acknowledge it.
So, should the media tone down strategy coverage? Sure. Should strategy reporting be secondary to helping the public decide how candidates would actually do their jobs if elected? Of course. But can we ignore campaign strategy in the hopes that it will go away? I don't think so.
Posted by: Perry Parks at March 31, 2004 6:24 PM | Permalink
It looks the situation has gone beyond the capabilities of the administration, or any administration. This virus can very easy spread, and spread as a virus close to home, at the present the worlds stability is quite fragile, not only in Iraq but as well South America, Asia, and Africa; in fact, there is a world revolution. I wonder how US marines are going to cope with all this. In addition there is (terrorism and Al-Queda) ever sense the Bush administration declared the USA as an Empire, you are now seeing the results! A world up in arms billions of individuals not millions! It is better to retreat as the USA is a bit like the world; a somewhat structured large quantities of different individuals. 34 million Latinos, 10 million Chinese, Another 34 million of African Americans, and other minorities that probably amount to a few millions, this make more than half of the nation. Increase in violence is the wrong path, even if everyone claims is a defeat to pull out of Iraq, they all say that now, because you are still there. There is no other choice, not for the Iraqis this time but for the future existence of the USA, if that is a goal. If on the other hand there is a suicidal tendency them is another matter. If what the American nation aims is to blow up the world them is more a psychological help than other things. One thing is to have an empire another is to decree. Napoleon conquered Spain, but he never managed to rule it. Therefore, he was a virtual emperor!
Posted by: alfred bremont at April 7, 2004 6:02 PM | Permalink