These Reporters Today . . .
Despite all the complaining, we're in a golden age of political and policy coverage.
Heidi Moore, a former reporter and editor for a variety of publications now working as a consultant, offers a brutal critique and some suggestions for those in the news media. They’re mostly wrong.
Ironically, as we shall see, it’s in the form of a Twitter thread.
The DC press corps obsessed over the Mueller hearing for weeks before it happened, frantically covered it while it was happening, and churned out thousands of pieces afterward analyzing what it all meant.
Okay . . .
I’m skeptical that, to the extent there’s a crisis in reporting, it magically appeared in 2015. But go on.
Okay, how so?
So, she’s on Twitter telling people to get off of Twitter. Properly curated, Twitter is an excellent means of getting up-to-date information. But, yes, it’s problematic if reporters are spending all their time on social media and not doing actual reporting.
Still, I’m skeptical. What is this “real evidence”? Certainly, there was a hive mind before Twitter. Remember Journolist? Modern communication technology simply enables people with common interests to be in constant touch in a way that wasn’t possible for previous generations.
I don’t know what a “valid US policy platform” is. But many US politicians and policymakers, up to and especially including the President of the United States, use Twitter to announce and marshall support for their policies. Yes, that’s marketing. But it’s not just marketing.
This is circular.
We had polling long before cable news. Remember “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN”? Ditto horse race coverage, discussion of optics, etc.
And, either Twitter and other social media outlets are “distribution vectors” worthy of coverage or reporters should stay off of them. It can’t be both.
Here, I’m in agreement with Moore. And, yes, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that what the elite group of wonks I follow on Twitter and read on various other platforms think is what America thinks. But she ultimately undermines this point; we’ll get to that shortly.
Presumably, it varies from outlet to outlet. There’s certainly no shortage of politics-as-advertising, horserace reporting. It’s been around as long as I can remember and I’m quite a bit older than Moore. But there’s more policy reporting than ever before. There’s more of it than I can possibly read, even in my narrow national security and defense niche, and I get paid to read it.
I’m not sure this is a rebuttable critique. How many centrists should get quoted in a story? What’s a centrist, anyway? Is Rahm Emanuel one?
But, sure, to the extent reporters are using too few sources—and the same ones over and over—it’s a problem. It’s been a problem on television networks for as long as I can remember. I’m not aware of it being a problem in top-drawer print outlets but it’s not one I’ve been looking for, either.
Again, this is a vague critique but one to which I’m sympathetic. I, too, would prefer that the mass debate on public policy issues be driven more by experts from a variety of viewpoints than by pols and partisans. But, again, this isn’t a phenomenon that began in 2015—or even 1985.
So, I call bullshit on this. I guarantee you that every young reporter for every major outlet has been trained to interview subjects and make phone calls. But, actually, email, texting, instant-messaging, direct-messaging, and the like are simply how most people under 40 communicate nowadays. And, frankly, even though I’m over 50, I much, much prefer that reporters contact me via one of those methods before attempting to reach me via telephone. Indeed, unless we have a pre-existing relationship, I’m going to be angry if they cold call me.
This is too broad a claim to analyze. Still, I agree that modern reporting tends to be less well-sourced than it was ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago. That’s not because These Reporters Today are lazy but because reporting budgets are much more meager than they used to be and the modern communications environment has incentivized getting the story up Right Now.
White House reporters, going back to Dan Rather and Sam Donaldson, hung around the White House press room. That didn’t preclude their also doing reporting.
Pick three random stories from the New York Times or Washington Post website. I guarantee you all of them cite multiple sources. Probably not ten or fifteen, but certainly more than two. But any reported piece—as opposed to the ones that are essentially transcriptions of press conferences or releases—will almost certainly involve having talked to multiple people on background. Just because the story doesn’t quote ten or fifteen people doesn’t mean he didn’t talk to them.
This one has me scratching my head.
So, reporters should rely on anecdotal evidence gleaned by talking to a few random yahoos for their reporting rather than data gathered by public opinion polling? And, in the one instance she cites where they actually did that they got it wrong? Wrong how? And how does she know?
I don’t have the resources to fly to San Francisco for this blog post. But I would note that Nancy Pelosi was re-elected eight months ago with 86.8% of the vote in her district. It’s true she got only 68.5% in the open primary but no other candidate achieved double digits. Were she widely hated, you’d think she could draw an AOC-type challenger.
That said, being Speaker of the House is an inherently polarizing job. It’s much, much harder when there’s a Republican Senate and President. So it wouldn’t shock me at all if many in her well-left-of-center district are frustrated by her relatively centrist politicking. But they seem to enjoy having the Speaker of the House as their representative.
The mathematics of every reporter adding a unique-to-themselves source every week notwithstanding, I’m with her here in principle.
This is too vague to critique. But if the goal is for everyone to have a unique take rather than reporting the same story, we’re going to see a massive increase in competitive behavior.
POLITICO is for political junkies, not just lobbyists and other insiders. Their coverage can indeed be shallow and gossipy. But, to the extent other outlets are seeking to get ordinary Americans interested in politics when there’s no election going on, they’re naturally going to adopt some of the same practices. And, indeed, POLITICO was founded by reporters from the Washington Post.
So, I have no idea whether the public is “served” by polls and horse race politics. But they’ve been part of news reporting as long as I can remember. Political junkies are fascinated by them and ordinary citizens are skipping past stories about politics most of the time.
We’ve largely nationalized political coverage. That’s quite possibly a bad thing but it’s longstanding. It was true in small-town Alabama twenty-plus years ago before the Internet became a significant vehicle for distribution, making it inevitable.
Local papers are dying off rapidly with little prospect for revival. Nobody has come up with a sustainable business model and, after all these years, I presume it’s because there simply isn’t sufficient appetite for local coverage to generate the revenue to pay for producing it.
They’re talking about optics because, as Steven Taylor and I have both argued, Mueller’s lousy presentation all but assured that Americans who hadn’t already absorbed the findings of his report would never do so.
There has been an enormous amount of high-quality reporting on the Russia investigation. It’s available in an incredible diversity of formats, approaches, and levels of detail. Hell, Susan Hennessey went to number one on the iTunes podcast rankings breaking the damn report down to people months after its initial release. It’s almost like presentation matters.
AOC has gotten far, far more coverage than her actual impact on policy has merited. There was no horse race coverage of her primary because we seldom cover primaries, let alone in what are presumed to be safe seats.
And I don’t know what the second complaint even means. There’s plenty of coverage of how various policy proposals would impact various sub-groups. But it’s all but irrelevant if the candidate in question isn’t viable.
Look, I’m a policy wonk. I think policy is pretty important! But, again, 1) most people don’t read policy stories because they find them boring and 2) there are so many policy stories out there that nobody could possibly read them all. Just the Times and the Post alone produce dozens on them every day and there’s a vast array of other outlets doing deep dives into niches. Again, just in the defense field alone there’s more being written than I have time to read.
Sigh. This is just a non-sequitur. There’s tons and tons and tons of coverage of the crisis at our border. It’s simply bizarre to expect coverage of the Mueller hearings and their impact to weigh in on it. Every story can’t and shouldn’t be about everything.
Pelosi earned a reputation over three-plus decades in public life. She’s managed to get elected Speaker multiple times because she’s competent and tough as nails. McConnell keeps getting elected Republican Leader because he gets things Republicans want (tax cuts and conservative judges, mostly) passed when he can and stops Democrats from doing, well, pretty much anything when he can’t. They’re both incredibly good at their jobs.
It’s beyond the scope of political reporters to do deep dives into our institutional arrangements but, goodness knows, there’s plenty of discussion of that topic to be had. OTB isn’t the only venue doing that.
Moore seems to think it’s the job of the DC press corps to advocate for policy change rather than report on politics and policy proposals being advocated by our elected representatives and candidates for office. But there’s tons and tons and tons of coverage on each of those issues. One merely has to look for it.
I’ve written quite a bit over the years of the downside of the modern media culture and its emphasis on being first rather than being right. But I fully get the pressures that push it in that direction. We’re living on Twitter Standard Time and there’s a tendency to engage in useless speculation to slake the appetite of anxious consumers.
Still, we’re living in a golden age of media. As much as we may lament the demise of venerable old newspapers and magazines, there’s a much better and wider array of coverage on any topic imaginable than at any time in human history. And most of it is available to us literally anywhere, anytime, free of charge.
I’ve already noted just how much quality news, analysis, and commentary exists in the defense and national security spheres. The same is true of every topic Moore mentioned and any that I’m interested in.
There’s never been a better time for women, persons of color, or LGBTQ individuals to be heard. Not only have the traditional outlets become radically more diversified but there are dozens if not hundreds of niche outlets.
Ditto every public policy topic you can imagine. Or hobby or pastime.
The new kids aren’t lazy. They’re not incompetent. They’re cranking out great content by the ton.