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September 29, 2004

Nagourney's Challenge: Quit Spin Alley

When the lead correspondent of the New York Times won't play in your game, your game has been downgraded some. Plus: The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin calls the post-debate analysis "a seminal moment for American political journalism." Froomkin's Challenge is for bloggers too.

Yesterday I argued that Every Four Years (We Do the Same Damn Thing) was fit title for the performance of the campaign press in 2004. I also said that Adam Nagourney, his editor, Rick Berke, and the political team at the New York Times were guilty of “every four years (we do the same damn thing)” journalism in their approach so far.

Today I am reporting signs of a change. Small signs, but at a significant hour: day before the first presidential debate.

Nagourney told a Miami Herald reporter that he wouldn’t be heading promptly into the Spin Room at the debate Thursday night in Miami. He won’t be there at all. He plans to watch on TV from Washington, and write a story about what the candidates said.

Which defies the herd. In itself that is significant. Here is what Wednesday’s Herald said, in a preview of the debate by reporter Beth Reinhard:

Some experienced reporters shun the spin. In fact, Adam Nagourney, The New York Times’ national political correspondent, is going to watch the debate and write his story from his office in Washington.

”I avoid Spin Alley at all costs,” he said. “I think it’s degrading for reporters and degrading for political operatives.”

Degrading is exactly right. He might have added that it’s degrading to the listeners, and to voters, who are ultimately supposed to be spun.

Spin Alley’s most remarkable feature over all its years of development has never been the spin itself, which keeps getting more extreme, but the voluntary nature of the space and proceedings. You elected to be spun by going there in the first place. The press crowd co-produced its own degradation.

Nagourney’s Choice shifts him into non-compliance with the spin machine’s basic rule: show up. He won’t be there to be spun. “What’s important to me is what the candidates say. I don’t care about anyone else,” he told the Miami Herald.

Disclaimers: I’m sure the Times will have a presence in Miami. I’m sure there are others who stay away for reasons the same as Nagourney’s. I’m sure there are times when Nagourney does play ball and times when he is the one spun. We know the Times itself can be spun big time. The editors have told us so.

But when the lead correspondent of the New York Times won’t play in your game, your game has been downgraded some. From small movements like that bigger pattens of non-compliance might emerge. Adam Nagourney’s choice could have some effect, especially if we talk about it. (Get it, bloggers? This one does. This guy too.)

The news is at least one big shot reporter is withdrawing from Spin Alley. He says it adds nothing to his reporting and only encourages spin. He’s back from where the pack goes to find politics, and dwelling once again on the grounds of common sense.

Also moral sense. Nagourney says Spin Alley is degrading to the people who volunteer in it. The spinners might claim to enjoy making the sale, or take pride in their ability to “handle” journalists. Nagourney says there is no pride for anyone. The better you are at spin, the less hope there is for you, friend. You improve as a journalist when you stop.

So why don’t they stop? (I was urging that in November. See Raze Spin Alley.)

Beyond hastening the fall of Spin Alley there is other beauty in Nagourney’s Choice. It’s independent action on the correspondent’s part because most of the political press is going to be in that room Thursday. Therefore it’s an act of dissent, but not from the margins of the press. He works for Rick Berke and the New York Times. From the Herald account, where they’re setting up the arena with a designated spin space:

”That becomes action central,” said Joani Komlos, media director for the Commission on Presidential Debates, referring to an area at the far end of the media room. It’s normally a basketball court, and the political elbows can be just as sharp.

”The second the closing handshakes happen, each campaign sends their surrogates in at lightning speed,” Komlos continued. “There are people jumping over other people to grab interviews, and each side talks about how well their candidates did. You can’t get that flavor from your hotel room.”

It’s the flavor we need least, although I admit there’s a macabre interest when grown men and women, Mayors and Senators, try to advance the frontiers of robotics in service to Big Boss Talking Points.

Final points: Nagourney has chosen a common sense reporting method that moves him closer to the debate-watching citizen’s experience Thursday night— and also closer to the blogger’s domain. Listen for it: Adam Nagourney, The New York Times’ national political correspondent, is going to watch the debate and write his story from his office in Washington…

“What’s important to me is what the candidates say,” he said. Isn’t that where we’ve been for some time, waiting for journalists to come to their senses? As Corante’s Ernest Miller said to me, we’ll have to see how the choice to ditch Miami affects his reporting. For now I say: Bravo, Adam Nagourney.

Related: Dan Froomkin’s Challenge.

Meanwhile, from the environs of the Washington Post (“White House Briefing” column) and the Nieman Foundation at Harvard (he’s with both), and striking the same chord, but aiming also at the blogs, here’s Dan Froomkin’s challenge, reprinted from Romenesko’s Letters (Sep. 29). It ran under the title, Are You Up For the Challenge?

9/29/2004 12:30:04 PM

From DAN FROOMKIN: Wearing both my and hats, I’d like to ask my colleagues what you are planning to do to take up the challenge issued on the New York Times op-ed pages this week by Adam Clymer and Paul Krugman.

Clymer writes: “The test for journalists is whether they can appreciate the importance of the event and help voters make sense of what is said, checking the accuracy of claims about the past and the present and the plausibility of what is claimed for the future….

“The press in recent years has spilled a lot more important ink over debate style than substance, with dutiful fact-checking relegated to inside pages, and descriptions of candidates’ manners and costumes - and above all, strategy accompanying the front-page accounts of what was actually said.”

Krugman writes: “During the debate, Mr. Bush will try to cover for this dismal record with swagger, and with attacks on his opponent. Will the press play Karl Rove’s game by, as Mr. Clymer puts it, confusing political coverage with drama criticism, or will it do its job and check the candidates’ facts?”

My colleague Barry Sussman adds: “Reporters and commentators, especially on TV, can pretty much determine the outcome of the election by the approach they take covering the presidential debates that start Thursday night.

“Will they be opinionated or factual? Will they dwell on candidate tics, prepared one-liners, or real differences in positions? Will they, as pontificators, declare a winner, or will they, as observers, tell us what happened?

“Don’t hold your breath.”

Well, as it happens, I am holding my breath.

I think this is a seminal moment for American political journalism. And yes, the spinned confections are bound to appear in our newspapers and on our Web sites. But I think we can and should put a huge premium on fact-checking.

I know the Post and will be doing quite a bit, and I’ll be doing my part. I’m hoping to reach out to the blogging community to help here, too. After all, holding the press accountable is valuable. But going beyond that, and holding newsmakers accountable, is I think the blogging Grail.

So, are we up to the challenge? [end Froomkin]

UPDATE, Sep. 30, 1:00 PM. Froomkin reports a flurry of “fact check their ass” action in the mainstream media in advance of the debate, and produces a must read, link-filled column (as in right after this…) Let the Fact Checking Begin! It includes on the blogging side:

Bloggers Unite to Fact-Check the Debate

And here’s another way to make sure that the substance of Bush and Kerry’s comments are fully and quickly assessed.

Some key political bloggers, who have so effectively proven their ability to hold the press accountable, will tonight be posting their own debate fact-checks — and will be asking their readers to find and document substantively incorrect statements by the candidates, as well.

I’ve already talked to several bloggers on both sides of the political spectrum and they’re on board. I urge others in the blogging community to join in the experiment. Just make sure you e-mail me at so I know you’re out there.

In tomorrow’s column, I’ll link to the bloggers who are actively fact-checking and I’ll try to highlight some of the best and best-documented posts.

I heard Atrios is among the paticipants, but Dan is no dummy. He will get some righties and switch hitters. He urges you to email him if you want to play. Let the Fact Checking Begin!

Jeff Jarvis asked similar things of bloggers in August. Froomkin is talking to journalists and bloggers. Maybe that’s a bit of progress.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

It’s starting, little ripples out on the edges. Andrew Cline at Rhetorica on Nagourney’s Choice:

This is exactly how change begins. Many of my critics think I am far too idealistic and unrealistic in my suggestions for the press. I suppose I’m guilty—now. But Nagourney is showing us how we get there—eventually.

I’m on the record with this advice: Don’t watch the post-debate spin. Nagourney isn’t going to cover it. If the lead reporter for the NYT can get away with this, so can citizens. He’s saying: I don’t need the spin to do good journalism. You can say: I don’t need to be spun to make a good political/civic decision.

If I’m not mistaken, Cline makes a point about journalists providing civic leadership. We don’t watch the spin and we think you shouldn’t either.

UPDATE: Cline continues: “I told my students yesterday to mark their calendars because 30 September 2004 would become an important moment in journalistic history—the moment the lead campaign reporter for the The New York Times refused to be spun.”

Agreeing that Nagourney’s choice is potentially significant, journalist Ryan Pitts writes at Dead Parrot Society:

The current conventional wisdom says that the debate won’t be won so much during the exchange as afterward, when the spinmeisters go to work. This is horribly, twistedly wrong, and Nagourney’s choice to sit out the spin room in Miami won’t in itself keep that from coming true. But his report, we can hope, will be at least somewhat pristine, a reference point to use as cable news heads and op-ed page soldiers spend a few days struggling to find the right narrative.

Because we need to know what was said and whether it was right. Who wants to have other people tell them what to think about who won or lost? Readers sure don’t…. people are way past tired of us repeating spin and calling it reporting.

Police action… Writing in the Weekly Standard, Hugh Hewitt issues a warning to debate moderator Jim Lehrer:

Jim Lehrer takes his seat as debate moderator with the PBS brand as firmly affixed to his back as CBS is to Dan Rather’s. Moderating a presidential debate never carried much of a risk for the mother ship in the past, but in this era of new media, any detectable bias on Lehrer’s part will result in a cyber-tsunami headed towards PBS affiliates across the country.

The key is “detectable,” and the arbitrators of that won’t be the folks who ignored the Agent of Orange story on Wednesday morning. It will be the viewers themselves, working through the blogosphere, posting on, calling into talk radio, and canceling their pledges to local PBS affiliates if their verdict on Lehrer’s performance is negative.

Police Action, II… David Brock puts MSNBC on notice about using Republican pollster-become-pundit Frank Luntz and his focus groups during debate coverage. And it apparently works. MSNBC says no Luntz. “We think the audience is fully capable of coming to their own opinions without ‘scientific’ help,” says a spokesman. “A press release indicating that Frank Luntz would be on our air went out in error.”

The Daily Howler commenting on this from Josh Marshall about post-debate spin.

The spinning of that first debate transformed the 2000 race. Given the narrow way this election was decided, it is surely one of the most remarkable stories in modern press corps history. We think it’s important that you understand what actually happened in that crucial week—that week in which Gore handily “won” that debate, then took a bad beating in the polls. And it’s simply absurd to tell that story without discussing the press corps’ disdain for the candidate.

“Look for Substance, Not Sizzle.” Adam Clymer made his arguments on the op ed page of the New York Times, Sep. 27.

PressThink was saying it in November, 2003: Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press. “…The absurdity is well known, admitted to by journalists. Spin Alley goes on. Yet it would be easy to abandon it by the time we gear up for the big debates in Fall 2004. A major candidate could say: no one from my campaign will show up. ‘The American people don’t need my people telling them who won.’ Unlikely? Then how about this. Journalists just don’t show up.”

Rob Garver in the American Prospect (Sep. 29): “By preemptively declaring the debates to be meaningless political theater, the television news networks are giving themselves permission to cover them not as a battle of ideas but as a spectacle.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 29, 2004 7:47 PM