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September 15, 2004

Campaign Puzzler: How the Press Comes Out with a Win

If a newsroom boss had walked into a conference room a year ago and asked a team of political journalists, gathered to plan election coverage, "how can we come out with a win in 2004?" I am reasonably sure that puzzled glances would have been exchanged around the table...

This developed as the conclusion, or part two of yesterday’s post, Stark Message for the Legacy Media.

… For around the table, the traditional assumption would have held: it’s the candidates, the parties, the players who are trying to prevail and beat the other guy. We’re the press, we cover the campaign. It’s not our role to affect the outcome. We’re there to tell people what happens, and ask questions. We’re there to dig and get answers. We’re not running for anything. We’re a kind of umpire, at best. So what do you mean by win, boss person?

Well, the press doesn’t and shouldn’t try to win the election for a candidate or a cause. But they had all been in situations when they suddenly felt sick with disappointment at how effectively they had been sidelined by a certain tactic, how thoroughly they had been manipulated by certain actors, how far from the real issues and problems they had once again strayed, how little, in fact, they were serving voters by covering what they were covering, even though they were just covering what every other political journalist thought worth covering, even though they were completing the exhausting ritual—campaign coverage—as it then stood.

How many of you, the boss might have asked, ever felt professionally defeated in that way? All hands would shoot up. There is a lot about campaign journalism that smart journalists are sick of. And this is the moment a wise boss would have waited for.

So let me get this straight. (He might have said.) When you have lost during the campaign you absolutely know it. I come to this meeting to ask you how we can win in 2004, and the question doesn’t even make sense. Why? I think that’s unaffordable. It may be part of our legacy, but we cannot afford it in practice. Agenda-less journalism has gone the way of the punch card system in computing.

Before we commit planning on election coverage, we need to know: what’s a victory for us? As political journalists, this year, at this point in our careers, and at this moment in… how else can we phrase it? History. How can we, who are the press, post a big public service win in a political year, so that when it’s all over and we go to Harvard for the post-mortem with our friends in the profession, they ask us… how did you do it?

You’re political journalists. Tell me our strategy for winning in this election cycle, as an independent actor who gets acted on by all the others. Tell me who and what we have to defeat in order to prevail. Tell me what our campaign coverage agenda should be. And tell me why our cause is just.

Generally speaking, newsroom bosses don’t have that kind of discussion with their best political people. In fact their legacy is not to have it. The press knows it can lose in the campaign struggle, and wind up reporting the news but distracting the nation. It cannot say clearly, which also means openly, what for the press is a win.

This is part two. Part one is Stark Message for the Legacy Media: “Journalists find before them, with 50 days left, a campaign overtaken by Vietnam, by character issues, attacks, and fights about the basic legitimacy of various actors— including the press itself, including Dan Rather. It’s been a dark week. And the big arrow is pointing backwards.”

Latest PressThink: Rather’s Satisfaction: Mystifying Troubles at CBS.

Andrew Cline at Rhetorica says, in reply, that the question, “how can the press win?” effectively “highlights the lack of criteria by which journalists could measure something called success.”

I do not want to suggest criteria now. Instead, I’d like to suggest something that might lead to the discovery of criteria: Tell a different story.

The story of campaign politics as portrayed by the practice of journalism is the story of politicians and their world. Tell a different story. Tell the story of citizens and their world.

Now we’re talking— and thinking. Read the rest.

What’s a Loss for the Campaign Press Corps? Paul Farhi, reporting in the Washington Post, Sep. 16:

“The Democratic presidential nominee has not held a formal news conference or even answered questions from smaller groups of reporters — an ‘avail’ in campaign-speak — in more than a month. In the two weeks before the Democratic National Convention, Kerry spoke to the media just twice, answering a total of six questions.

“If anything, President Bush has been less available on the campaign trail, and in the White House generally. The president delegates all press inquiries to his White House communications staff and his reelection campaign. He has not taken a question from the reporters who are following his campaign for several weeks.”

For Media on Campaign Trail, Little Access to Candidates (WP).

When you say obsolete, you mean….? Here’s a big picture view from from PressThink reader Mark J. McPherson in the comments, using the new lingo MSM for Mainstream Media.

… Legacy Media is an awkward phrase for an institution that has, through self-mutation, rendered itself obsolete. The advent of cable television and the freedom of the Internet gave the 500 an unlimited opportunity to primp and preen. Cable yawned before the MSM as an awesome chasm of airspace to be filled, and the simultaneous conglomertization demanded that it be done on the cheap. And what in this wide world is cheaper than talk, talk, talk? Bureaus and in-depth investigations were seen as losers instead of loss leaders. So at the very time the content demand was growing exponentially, MSM was pulling its own intelligence circuits off-line, playing both the Dave Bowman and Hal 9000 roles.

The use of pooled video grew, but so did the practice of “anchors” sitting and watching video, stupidly and uninformedly commenting on what we could all see for ourselves. After an awkward time of this kind of stream-of-consciousness self-dialog for mass-consumption, the anchor would turn to a “reporter” and ask, in weak desperation, “What do you think?” And at first, it was if each reporter had been waiting their entire lives for someone to ask, and a new, and essentially identical stream of consciousness would flow. Video played in endless loops.

With few “soldiers” on the ground, few grunts to work the stories, the practice devolved into who could get the best pictures the fastest. Self-referencing became more pronounced, as anchors and reporters began to qualify their blather with such tags as, ‘we’re seeing this for the first time’ and ‘this is just speculation at this point’. The Internet begat mail lists which begat newsgroups which begat forums which beget blogs. In the beginning, much of it was anonymous and unconnected, and had a seat-of-the-pants bite and charm to it. It was loosey-goosey enough to allow rumor and innuendo, and anonymous enough to bring some of the locker-room banter into the public light. It was about the furthest thing from face-to-face, and because there was no immediate way to make it pay, it was fundamentally derivative, feeding off MSM. It was outsiders commenting on the Gang of 500, and no doubt many in the Gang got their chuckles from it.

But having starved its own brain of oxygen, MSM was beginning to stumble and struggle and to repeat itself. It was not as if the drift into a new dark age was a winning sales plan, so something had to fill the space between ads, and MSM increasingly began poaching on the blogs’ stakes, mining 2 separate veins. One was the partisan vein. The partisans were only too happy to spoon-feed content to MSM, and to bear much of the cost. Not only did the partisans provide content, they also provided platforms and talking points, told MSM what to show and what to say, and how to think. It is easier and more comforting to an intellectually hamstrung MSM to track a consistent partisan worldview, wherein everything is understood and conformed to mode of thinking, than it is to try and make objective sense of a complex and uncooperative world.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 15, 2004 11:43 AM