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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.”

“He 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.”

…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.

In routine interviewing - that is, most of the interviewing we do - anonymity must not be automatic or an assumed condition. In that kind of reporting, anonymity should not be offered to a source. Exceptions will occur in the reporting of highly sensitive stories, when it is we who have sought out a source who may face legal jeopardy or loss of livelihood for speaking with us.

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