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September 28, 2004

Every Four Years Journalism

"... The Every Four Years headset is like outdated software still running because it's an expensive decision and major disruption to replace a piece of press think so big, with so many parts. There is no agreement on a new 'think' system. And there is every incentive to keep the old program going for another election cycle, even though the world has moved on."

I covered eleven up until this one. Every one of them was the most important election of a lifetime, it was the generational election, it was the one that would decide things for the future. —AP reporter Walter Mears on CNN, Aug. 26

I keep thinking about what Richard Berke of the New York Times said in Washingtonian Magazine recently when he was asked about campaign coverage during 2004. It began when Harry Jaffe, the magazine’s national editor, made this wheezing point:

As always, there are reasons or rationalizations to explain the poor quality of coverage. Neither George Bush nor John Kerry has made himself very available in press conferences or interviews. But what’s new about distant candidates?

‘twas ever thus is the tone. Same-old, same-old. Jaffe then brings in Berke, who oversees election coverage for the Times Washington bureau:

“I don’t think anything’s changed that much,” says Rick Berke, who has covered politics for the New York Times since 1988. “Every four years we hear that this is the worst coverage and the candidates are not accessible. I don’t think this year it’s worse for us or anyone else.”

Got that? Things aren’t any worse for the press in 2004. They aren’t even different. I’ve heard Berke voice this on other occasions. Permit me to spell out, then, what I believe is an attitude in the political press, shared by him and an unknown number of highly experienced colleagues in the Gang of 500:

The professionally high-minded, the think tankers and op ed-writers, will bemoan what they are paid to bemoan. Worst ever! In reality, very little is different from cycle to cycle in the way campaigns are run.

New tools and tactics come along, voter interest waxes and wanes, but the basics of winning an election don’t change much. The coverage reflects the reality: Negative campaigning works. The candidates want to control their images, so they limit access. They try to communicate a single message no matter what the question is.

Critics see that and denounce us for how negative the news is. It’s always been negative, and it’s always been hard to get candidates to answer questions. Because that is how you win. You control the message and define the other guy unfavorably. It may offend the civic minded, but the reality is it works.

Now if you recognize this argument at all—or the tone in which it is given—then you may also be able to recall moments from panel shows like Washington Week when Gwen Ifill and Rick Berke and Gloria Borger, or others of similar mind, shared a soft chuckle of agreement because one of the group had said, “every four years we hear this is the most critical election of our lifetimes.” Chuckle, chuckle.

That is the attitude I draw to your attention. The same-old, same-old state of mind in journalism. Included in it, of course, is… We’ve heard these complaints before. Conclusions about campaign reporting also follow. There’s a standard model of how to do it, and Berke is so right: it hasn’t changed.

But the world has. So if “worst ever!” is the wrong way to criticize press performance, as Rick Berke the de-exciter suggests, then “hasn’t changed much” is, I think, far more to the point.

In the standard model you cover the dynamics of the race so you can explain who’s likely to win and why. You take people inside the process to de-mystify it. You focus on the major issues in the campaign, and where the candidates stand. You try to follow the money.

You profile the candidates, show where they come from, examine their records. You watch the ads by comparing them to the facts. And you pay attention to the polls because everyone in the game attends to the polls. The polls tell us where we are in the race.

Sprinkle with commentary and savvy analysis from experienced pros. Bake and serve every four years. Leave all the rest to the editorial pages and talk shows.

The standard model, which contains its own idea of virtue, wouldn’t be standard unless it worked. It lets you plan election coverage and crank out the content week-to-week. Perhaps its greatest virtue is not how well it works, or “thinks,” but the very fact that you don’t have to think about it. Attention can go to finding great stories and telling them well.

Put the argument about campaigns and the conclusions about reporting together and you have the genre, Every Four Years Journalism. Without saying so explicitly, it claims no need to innovate in the reporting of elections. But there is a need for virtue among reporters and editors. The Times has been virtuous while others were distracted, says Harry Jaffe of Washingtonian:

Perhaps Times coverage has been affected the least. It has paid glancing attention to the back and forth over where and how the candidates spent their Vietnam War years. It has published detailed reports and analyses of how President Bush has handled the environment, education, and Medicare; a report on Social Security is in the works.

There’s a simpler way for me to describe Every Four Years Journalism. Just point in the direction of Adam Nagourney, lead political reporter for the New York Times, who was given the horse race, strategy, and election dynamics piece of the pie. He’s been doing his beat in an “every four years we do it this way” style. (See, for example, his analysis on New Year’s Day.)

One small indication that Burke has succeeded in keeping the Times in tune with the premise, “not much has changed,” came last week from Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk. The Desk took note of the best performances so far among by-lined reporters on the campaign beat.

None on the election team at the Times made the top ten in a “short list of reporters who consistently rise above the superficial to do original and often insightful work.” (Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart made the list; Todd Purdum of the Times was honorable mention.) And this is from a jury at Columbia, not known as an institution hostile to the New York Times.

Ex op-ed columnist and Arts & Leisure critic Frank Rich made Campaign Desk’s top ten. But he doesn’t work for Berke. His essay-style reflections on the political season take an opposite approach: not Every Four Years, but “wake up to what time it is, journalists.” Here Rich tries to alert the press to what’s happening:

Between the White House and Fox’s smears of the mainstream press and the mainstream press’s own scandals and failings of will, the toll on the entire news media’s position in our culture has been enormous. A Pew Research Center survey published in June found that the credibility of all news sources is low, in some cases falling precipitously since the start of the Bush administration: major newspapers, the broadcast networks, the cable news networks and PBS alike.

They’re trying to drive up our negatives and it’s working. We’re cooperating in that. What do we do now, press people? Our position in the culture is getting weaker. Every Four Years Journalism is oblivious to the kind of puzzle Rich is describing.

I said the standard model of campaign coverage works. But it works in the sense that Net people say Mosaic—the early web browser from back in 1993—still works. The Every Four Years headset is like outdated software still running because it’s an expensive decision and major disruption to replace a piece of press think so big, with so many parts. There is no agreement on a new ‘think’ system. And there is every incentive to keep the old program going for another election cycle, even though the world has moved on.

The newswriting formula known as He said, she said is perhaps the clearest example of outdated software in the press, and it is curious to me how the formula became a widely-discussed issue in 2004. The weight of opinion began to change. Leaving disputes at the level of “he said, she said” used to be seen as fairness to both sides. It was tied up with a certain idea about virtue in reporting: that it comes down to balance. Now the same practice is increasingly seen as unfair to readers, viewers and listeners because it adds to their informational confusion. There’s a new virtue emerging.

In order to interrupt an Every Four Years practice, Campaign Desk suggested a “new” piece of software—a plug-in—for covering political dispute: He said, she said, we said. Susan Q. Stranahan back in May wrote:

With a variety of Internet research tools readily at hand, it has never been easier for reporters to draw an independent assessment on any given day of who is right, who is wrong, and in what way. The bottom line on this kind of reporting doesn’t have to be Spinmeisters, 1, Accuracy, 0.

It doesn’t have to be that way… Every Four Years has been a way for the political press to go on pretending. It pretends that “spin” is still a manageable thing, when in fact the practice of spin has outrun the capacity of journalists to do anything about it, until they change operating systems. This week the press will be telling us a lot about the post-debate spin war and what a key factor that is on Thursday night in Miami— and over the weekend. Journalists are enablers in this war, but it doesn’t have to be so.

A ‘twas ever thus outlook suggests a stable balance of power where the press is accepted as part of the governing system and has certain pushback rights; but in fact the system today is highly unstable and the White House, among other players, is seeking to roll back some of the roles and rights the press has had.

In April, I wrote about Bush’s innovative press doctrine: “You’re Assuming That You Represent the Public. I Don’t Accept That.” The Every Four Years approach cannot handle a president who, sensing weakness, simply changes the rules on the press— unilaterally, as it were.

It’s a pretense of Big Journalism that measures like banning the staff from benefit concerts help secure the regime of neutrality, when that regime is under aggressive attack from political opponents of “the liberal media.” It will continue to be attacked regardless of whether journalists observe newsroom rules prohibiting such things as yard signs and bumper stickers.

The Every Four Years approach further pretends that the professional ideal of a neutral, fact-finding, objective and purely informational press is still the standard brand and has no serious challengers, when in fact the serious challenge is here in the presence of Fox, blogging, a rising journalism of voice, and the general fragmentation of the media market, which has made a plurality of approaches the new “standard.”

Jon Stewart, who is in every sense a professional, is part of this plurality. He delivers a take on the news that is more truthful than the news for a good hunk of the audience. And so Stewart is cited by Campaign Desk for some of the most original work of the year. Often, he’s more believable than both the candidates or the press.

It’s possible to describe The Daily Show as just one more source of information about politics. But it’s really a competing system of trust for alert audiences in a Spin Age. (See this study of its citizen-viewers, a pdf file.) Stewart’s executive producer Ben Karlin: “Many people in this country have strong bullshit detectors. For some reason, most major media outlets have turned theirs off out of fear of being labeled partisan.” (Link.)

When the Gang of 500 (that’s what The Note calls the national press) sat down and planned its approach for 2004, it decided in its half-conscious way that “no innovation, just execution” would suffice. The shareware it was running in 1988 and 1992, and kept running through 1996 and 2000, could run again in ‘04. There were adjustments to make but no thoughts of re-tooling. So innovation this year is coming from outside the Gang.

We should be seeing top ten lists from major news organizations identifying the most dubious claims currently being made by or about the candidates. If one side in the struggle owns nine out of ten spots on the dirty list for the week— so be it. A lot of journalism would go into making such a list, and properly maintaining it. On the other hand, it’s a natural for promotion and a possible audience builder.

We should have seen invented by now unilateral action by the press to end collaboration in zones and rituals of excessive spin. This includes withdrawing from background briefings by the Administration and resigning from Spin Alley at the debates. We need guys and gals on the bus ready to walk out if they cannot question the candidate while traveling with the candidate. Virtues found in that kind of action might prove valuable to journalists in other settings.

The press should be breaking ground in the setting-it-straight business, with new and powerful means for correcting the candidates, the record, and itself. It should be learning how to report the idea race, as well as it does the horse race. It has to catch up with the transparency revolution and become a force for good. Having put good journalism on the Internet, it has to create a political journalism of the Internet, which is more difficult.

The Every Four Years outlook is the mark of a professional’s experience within the game. It’s a natural attitude among those who plan to see each other in New Hampshire in 2007, where the game will resume. But when I step into the voting booth and make a choice for president, I don’t think: wow, another turn in the cycle. Back where we were four years ago. Do you?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Entertainment critic Lloyd Sachs in the Chicago Sun Times gets it right:

Oddly enough, if there is any news anchor to whom viewers turn for assurance these days, it is Jon Stewart, whose nightly ripostes on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” tell us that being skeptical, frustrated, angry, weary, stunned and bleakly amused in response to what our leaders are saying and doing in the world are appropriate responses. Ted Koppel may scoff over the number of young TV viewers who ostensibly now turn to Stewart as their primary source of news — and any self-respecting journalist would discourage that trend — but you can’t fault comedy for telling the truths that “objective” reporting shies away from.

Debate preparation and the Spin War: (New York Times, Sep. 27)

As Mr. Bush prepared in Texas, Mr. Kerry studied up at a resort in Spring Green, Wis., where aides were focused not only on Mr. Kerry’s debate performance, but in managing the perceptions afterward. They were keenly aware of how perceptions of Al Gore steadily worsened in the aftermath of the first debate as Bush advisers highlighted what they said were examples of exaggeration by Mr. Gore.

“What everybody learned out of 2000 was that the Bush people went in with a theory of that debate, and no matter what happened they stuck to that theory and they won the spin war,” said Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Kerry’s press secretary.

Ms. Cutter said Mr. Kerry had his own theory on the coming debate. She would not disclose it.

If I read this correctly, it’s saying that for both sides in 2004 the “spin” after does not even pretend to depend on the debate any more. You have your theory of what’s going to happen and it’s X. Then X happens. Then you say X happened, and you repeat that X happened— no matter what went on in the hall.

David Broder, commentary in the Washington Post (Aug. 26): The Media, Losing Their Way.

After almost a half-century in this business, I certainly feel a sense of shame and embarrassment at our performance. The feeling is not relieved by the awareness that others in journalism not only did fine work on other stories but took the lead in exposing these instances of gross malpractice.

…We need to be asking why this collapse has taken place.

My suspicion is that it stems from a widespread loss of confidence in both the values of journalism and the economic viability of the news business.

Jack Shafer in Slate on David Broder’s, “The Media, Losing Their Way.”

David Broder’s complaint is less about journalism’s bad year than it is about David Broder’s bad decade. Once upon a time, The Dean and other surviving members of the old guard—to which I’d add Jack Germond and Johnny Apple—enjoyed a level of prestige and influence that nobody can claim today. But technology, competition rising from every corner, and the cruelty of age have diminished all of them. Instead of accepting the new—improved—era, Broder would prefer to channel Norma Desmond, the washed-up silent star in Sunset Boulevard played by Gloria Swanson, who is blind to the passing of her day.

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” Desmond says.

Credentials, please… Columnist Nick Coleman of the Star-Tribune decides to be as insulting as possible:

I have been a reporter longer than most bloggers have been alive, which makes me, at 54, ready for the ash heap. But here’s what really makes bloggers mad: I know stuff.

I covered Minneapolis City Hall, back when Republicans controlled the City Council. I have reported from almost every county in the state, I have covered murders, floods, tornadoes, World Series and six governors.

In other words, I didn’t just blog this stuff up at midnight.

And as for being a political stooge, unlike the bloggies, I don’t give money to politicians, I don’t put campaign signs on my lawn, I don’t attend political events as anything other than a reporter, I don’t drink with pols and I have an ear trained to detect baloney.

Do bloggers have the credentials of real journalists? No. Bloggers are hobby hacks, the Internet version of the sad loners who used to listen to police radios in their bachelor apartments and think they were involved in the world.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 28, 2004 12:11 PM