What’s Wrong With Political Reporting?
Political journalists aren't like you and me. Well, you, anyway.
In an address to the Melbourne Writer’s Festival yesterday, NYU’s Jay Rosen explains “Why Political Coverage is Broken.” The speech is worth reading in full but some excerpts are useful for discussion.
Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate…. this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage in the U.S. and Australia. Here’s how I would summarize it: Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.
This is not a new problem. Indeed, this site draws its name from the longstanding concept that those close to power have a very different understanding of it than those on the outside looking in. It was at the time I chose the name (January 2003) playfully ironic. I had just moved six months earlier from rural Alabama to the DC exurbs, living and working within a couple miles of Dulles airport.
Having lived here nine years now, my attitudes and perspectives have indeed changed. I actually work in downtown DC now and meet a lot of used-to-be’s and the occasional still is. Being that close to power has actually enhanced my understanding of how far from it I am. Certainly, I would never label myself an “insider.”
At the same time, though, I’m less doctrinaire on fiscal issues and even less socially conservative than I was when then. How much of that is a function of living in the National Capitol Region per se and how much is simply being in a cosmopolitan setting and surrounded by a much greater variety of perspectives than I was, I can’t say. (Additionally, I’ve spent most of the same time blogging and otherwise engaging with really sharp minds from across the globe on a virtual basis. So, the attitudinal changes may have occurred even if I were still on campus at Troy. Indeed, using Steven Taylor as a control group gives evidence in that direction.)
To the extent that writing political commentary constitutes “journalism,” then, I’m doubtless identifying even more with the elites than I did nine years ago. Were I a political reporter interacting with insiders on a daily basis, that would doubtless be more true.
Part of the problem was identified by Lindsay Tanner in his book, Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy. He points out how often the Australian press reframes politics as entertainment, seizing on trivial episodes that amuse or titillate and then blowing them up until they start to seem important. I’m not going to dwell on this because Tanner has it well covered. So did my mentor in graduate school, Neil Postman, in his 1985 classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
From a TV programmer’s point of view the advantage of politics-as-entertainment is that the main characters, the politicians themselves, work for free! The media doesn’t have to pay them because taxpayers do. The sets are provided by the government, the plots by the party leaders, back benchers and spin doctors. Politics as problem-solving or consensus-building would be more expensive to cover. Politics as entertainment is simply a low cost alternative.
There’s something to this, as the ridiculous over-coverage (in which OTB took part) of the Anthony Weiner scandal attests. For that matter, the outsized attention Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann get come more from their personalities and propensity to say unusual things than their likelihood of occupying the Oval Office.
But, as I’ve argued many times before, the main problem with political coverage–and, again, OTB is a frequent offender–is that it’s treated as sport, moreso than as scripted amusement. Rosen doesn’t quite put it that way, but he seems to concur:
When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to “win.” Reveal those tactics to the public because then the public can… well, this is where it gets dodgy. As my friend Todd Gitlin once wrote, news coverage that treats politics as an insiders’ game invites the public to become “cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement,” which is strange. Or it lavishes attention on media performances, because the insiders are supposed to be good at that: manipulating the media.
I don’t think this is so much by design but a function of daily–and now, minute-by-minute–coverage. If political journalism were confined to weekly magazines like Time or The New Yorker or even monthly magazines like The Atlantic, it would be radically different. We’d get in-depth features on the candidates, with reporters following them around for days and recording their thoughts, capturing impressions of their demeanor and character, and then framing a narrative. Instead, reporting has traditionally been built around the daily newspaper and, more recently, the nightly newscast. That requires something “new” on a daily basis. So today’s poll, today’s gaffe, and today’s speech has to provide something to build a story around.
Blogs, which incentivize quick reaction with little verification, and Twitter, which rewards snark and instant glibness, are changing this further. There’s not much reflection when you’re living on Twitter Standard Time.
That’s not a criticism. I’ve written some 20,000 blog posts and 30,000 tweets over the years. I enjoy the back and forth and the constant sifting of information have sharpened my writing. During these past nine years I’ve also published dozens of pieces in national outlets that grew out of blog posts and, increasingly, Twitter conversations. But it’s doubtless changed the nature of political journalism. There’s much more writing aimed at other “insiders”–journalists, bloggers, Tweeters, and other political junkies.
Rosen nails it with this:
In the United States, most of the people who report on politics aren’t trying to advance an ideology. But I think they have an ideology, a belief system that holds their world together and tells them what to report about. It’s not left, or right, or center, really. It’s trickier than that. The name I’ve given to the ideology of our political press is savviness. And I see it in Australia too. When you watch political journalists on a roundtable program summing up the week and looking ahead, what they are usually performing for us is… their savviness.
So let me explain what I mean by that term. In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)
Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.
To the people inside it, savviness is not a cult. It is not a professional church or “belief system.” They would probably reject my terms. But they would say that journalists need to be savvy observers because in politics the unsavvy are hapless, clueless, deluded, clownish, or in some cases extreme. The unsavvy get run over: easily. They get disappointed: needlessly. They get angry-fruitlessly-because they don’t know how things really work.
I wouldn’t characterize myself as a member of this cult, but I’ve attended a few meetings. I regularly call out politicos for being indecent, uncivilized, and ignorant and still value toughfulness and humanity. But, certainly, I’m drawn to those who are smart, clever, wonkish, and ironic. It’s no doubt why, for example, I’ve always liked Joe Biden and have never understood the seething hostility so many on my side have towards Barack Obama. For that matter, it’s partly why I’ve instinctively dismissed Palin, Bachmann, and others with whom I doubtless agree on more issues than Biden and Obama as unworthy to lead.
Additionally, this is a function of my personality and training. In a post some months back called “Cognitive Bias and the Pundit Class,” I quoted Kevin Drum:
I’m willing to bet that most of us are a bit nerdy, sort of hyperanalytical, maybe even slightly Aspergers-ish. We’re comfortable — too comfortable, probably — viewing the ebb and flow of human lives as an accounting exercise. We’re also very sure of ourselves, generally pretty verbal, and we have soapboxes to shout from.
Most of us in the punditry game are INTJ types whose analytical mindsets have been reinforced by academic training and career choices. We tend to be driven by data and accepting of the random chaos of the universe in a way that normal people aren’t. And, as I constantly point out, we’re also freakishly interested in politics and policy, whereas the vast majority of our fellow citizens have enough sense to ignore these things until a couple weeks before the election.
What’s so weird about savviness is that it tries to position us as insiders, invited to speculate along with journalists and other players on how the mass public will react to the latest maneuverings. But the public is us. We are the public. But we are also the customers for the savviness product. Don’t you see how strange that is?
Here, I think he’s off the mark. As already noted, the average person hardly cares about politics at all. Maybe they’ll pay attention during presidential election years but they’re not that interested in the daily grind. The general public isn’t reading Politico, much less OTB. So, in essence, political journalism is written for people a whole lot like political journalists but who have other jobs.
Granted, this is somewhat circular. Maybe if politics were covered in more of a “news you can use” manner, ordinary folks would be more inclined to read it. But I doubt it. US News and other publications have tried to go down that road without much success.
Take the most generic “savviness question” there is. One journalist asks another: how will this play with the voters? Listening to that, how will this play with the voters, haven’t you ever wanted to shout at your television set, “hey buddy… (sorry, hey mate) I’m a voter! Don’t talk about me like I’m not in the room when I’m sitting right here watching you.” This is what’s so odd about savviness as a political style performed for the public. It tries to split the attentive public off from the rest of the electorate, and get us to join up with the insiders. Under its gaze, other people become objects of political technique. In this sense savviness is an attack on our solidarity with strangers who share the same political space.
Now, again, this may just be a function of my personality type but I’ve been an avid consumer of this stuff for three decades and never had that reaction. From the standpoint of a college student in Alabama, the talking heads on the Fox News or This Week roundtable actually are “insiders” with a unique perspective. I always felt like I was getting a glimpse behind the curtain. And, indeed, I was.
The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things! He said, she said journalism doesn’t tell us who’s distorting the picture more. It is neutral on where the reality is, but reality is not something journalists can afford to be neutral about!
Political journalism should help us get our bearings in a world of confusing claims and counter-claims. But instead we have savviness, the dialect of insiders bringing us into their games. Nothing is more characteristic of the savvy style than statements like “in politics, perception is reality.” Doesn’t that statement make you mad? Whenever I hear it, I want to interrupt and say, “No, no, no. You have it wrong. In politics, perception isn’t reality. Reality is reality!”
This is perhaps the overreaching thesis of all of Rosen’s work: the vapidness of “the view from nowhere.” I’m largely in agreement that we’d be better off if journalists were simply transparent about their biases and gave us unvarnished narrative rather than pretending to be objective while subtly getting their point-of-view out by selective quoting of “experts” and anonymous ”sources” to whom they can attribute their own opinions. Still, I’m uneasy with the notion that it’s the job of straight news reporters to give us their opinions. Almost all “facts” in political debate are subject to interpretation and spin. And it’s probably best to let that debate play out among analysts who label themselves as such rather than straight news reporters.
Rosen gives the example of Rick Perry’s climate change denialism. Is it really the job of the reporter to note, in every story about the debate, that virtually all professional scientists believe in man-mind climate change? Or is that a job for political opponents, op-ed writers, and such? I tend toward the latter.
The New Yorker is a weekly.
Back to read the rest of your post, now….
Some facts are actually in question, and some solid facts are jailed in conflict.
It is now well documented that the cigarette-cancer connection was made early, but the tobacco companies recognized that they could maintain confusion somewhat longer. If any journalists in that era said “ah well, cigarettes and health are open to interpretation” then they did their readers a disservice.
I think many reporters still give too much deference to that sort of artificial conflict today.
The attitude expressed in your last two sentences explains why we went to war in Iraq. It’s nothing to be proud of.
@OzarkHillbilly: Fixed! I knew there was a reason I canceled my subscription. Even aside from the fact that a quarter to a third was Manhattan-based crap that I didn’t care about, it was just more than I had time to keep up with. I can read online articles any time but tend to read magazines at bedtime, severely restricting how many I can profit from.
I could not disagree more. It is an elemental fact, in the case you use, that Perry is in direct opposition to scientific consensus. When left to the opposition to point out it becomes “he said, she said”. Indeed if journalists reported the facts there would not be a discussion of humans role in climate change – we would be discussing what to do about it, which is the appropriate discussion to have.
You raised climate change…the same applies to death panels, Iraq, tax cut catechism, birtherism, and on and on. If journalists had pointed out the facts we never would have wasted time on these things…or in the case of Iraq, blood and treasure.
Who would have guessed that a magazine named The New Yorker would focus on things primarily of interest to people living in New York? 😉
Here’s a question (or two):
Do you think reporters can spot the artificial conflicts?
And if they can, does that mean they are turning a blind eye?
You’ve given us a lot to digest here. What I like is the picture you draw of how your political intellect operates – and I like it because it shows you care about “reality” and adjust your thinking when you butt up against it. This makes me all the more dissatisfied with your final conclusion – “Is it really the job of the reporter to note, in every story about the debate, that virtually all professional scientists believe in man-mind climate change? Or is that a job for political opponents, op-ed writers, and such? I tend toward the latter.”
The currently dominant mode of reporting, which you seem to affirm, allows too many falsehoods to take root in too many minds, by not pointing out the lies and other deviations from responsible argument. It also doesn’t do much to educate the “common reader” about policy issues and their ramifications, because it focuses instead on “horse race” and “entertainment.” When “savviness” causes reporters and their readers to ignore more substantial issues, savvy = stupid.
Maybe it’s a good time to invoke “On Bullshit” by Harry Frankfurt.
It would be a better world if reporters felt they could call bullshit, when they see it, and not leave that for the editorial pages.
@Stormy Dragon: Oh, that’s not a criticism of the magazine! Indeed, the title is why I ignored it for so many years. I’m just saying that, while there were some good articles in each issue, much of it was simply of no potential value to me and that made it easier to cull from my reading list.
@john personna: The problem is I don’t know where the line should be drawn. Some things, 90 percent of us–and 70 percent of the general public–would agree is bullshit. But it’s not too far from there to reporters simply calling “bullshit” on political ideas they disagree with.
Political ideas are not facts.
Climate change is a fact that has become a political idea because of journalistic laziness.
The Laffer curve is a political idea not supported by facts.
Saddam Hussein posing an existential threat to the US is a political idea not supported by fact.
Was that a shift from “fact” to “political ideas?”
When a candidate says marriage should be defined as the union of a man and a woman, he’s declaring a subjective social opinion, which one might disagree with, but can’t really call bullshit on.
On the other hand, when he says “the US doesn’t have a tax problem, it has a spending problem,” the reporter can explain what that implies, mathematically.
2010 receipts were $2.2T, outlays were $3.7T, to make them match by spending reduction alone, spending would have to be cut 40%. Surely that would boggle the reader’s mind. A direct cut of 40%.
But they are never told that, the game of bullshit is propelled forward,
Actually the curve is acceptable economics, no stupider than most generalizations, the political spin was the unsupported assertion of where we were on that curve.
Maybe not, but if false but “ideologically correct” ideas were routinely challenged in straight reporting pieces, we’d probably have fewer of them taking hold in the national consciousness.
The problem with leaving the debate to the op-eds, etc, is that it’s not always the merit of an idea that determines the winner, but sometimes the “savviness” with which its sold.
Very interesting post. I hadn’t thought about the personality type angle before and as a INTJ myself, I was taken back a bit by that insight.
However, as others have noted, that you would put the word fact in quotes here is very disappointing. That the line between facts and political ideas is being blurred unabashedly is the heart and soul of what is wrong with political journalism.
I find this odd that you would bring global warming up as an example of a scientific ‘fact.’ While most of you repeat, like a broken record, a consensus of professional scientists believing in AGW, there is a growing consensus of professional scientists and recent scientific data directly refuting this ‘fact,’ such as the latest information gleaned from CERN and NASA. But, new data is rejected, while old distorted ideas are propped up and repeated on your soapbox.
The same is true of the Great Depression, and how old socially progressively oriented historians interpret the timeline of events kindly, in reference to FDR’s political intervention. In the meantime, newer analysis show him to have interfered with economic recovery, extending and magnifying the depression with fiscally stifling policies, many of which current progressive minds now want to impose on this country to correct similar ills.
It’s the GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) syndrome of political reporting, whereby ‘news’ is translated into ‘fact’ by the ideology of the writer, and is then forever more passed around as truth.
Jan takes her brain out for a walk and as usual it leaves a mess behind.
No. This is not the case. And it’s an improper use of “concensus.” Especially if you previously argued that we don’t currently have consensus about AGW. As in the previous thread where you brought this up, I suggested that you read the meta-analysus to understand that the way certain data is being interpreted by political pundits is not what the data says…
On the “Nasa/Spencer” discussion: http://judithcurry.com/2011/07/30/spencer-braswells-new-paper/
On the recent Cern Data: http://www.skepticalscience.com/ConCERN-Trolling-on-Cosmic-Rays-Clouds-and-Climate-Change.html
The one thing that perhaps we both agree on is the notion that “Consensus” isn’t the proper word as it suggests an impossible and impractical bar. As scientist Judith Curry suggests, representations of Certainty and Uncertainty might be a better way of describing our current understandings. To that point, Mitt Romney probably made one of the most cogent statements on Climate Change (and one that the majority — and I am accurately using majority — of climate related scientists would agree with):
How well would the recovery from the Great Depression have gone if our country, like Germany and others, had been dominated by political extremists? The Depression in Germany fostered a three-way batte (reducing the detail for brevity) between the Oligarchs, the Communists and the Nazis. Similar radicalization took place in France, the UK etc… Going into WW2 most of the more developed world also had very well-developed Communist and Fascist parties. We, on the other hand, had the WPA.
You know why radical ideologies like communism and fascism never took hold during the US depression? FDR. That’s why. Work programs and welfare programs took the edge off radicalism because it was seen that our government actually was trying to help rather than remaining indifferent to the poor or even hostile. A bond was forged between regular people and Washington — a bond that served us very well when it came time for us to go to war.
Imagine how well a “recovery” might have gone if Communist parties held a third of Congress and Fascists another third. Imagine how well we would have responded to Pearl Harbor if a significant portion of the US population had seen Berlin or Moscow as the focus of their political loyalties.
For what it is worth, I will confirm the above for the sake of the public discussion (since we have talked about this in the dreaded Real World before): but yes, blogging since 2003 (for those who don’t know, I started a few weeks after James did–indeed, the creation of OTB was my inspiration to create PoliBlog) has clearly altered my thinking on a number of issues, some more dramatically than others. It is one thing to have cherished opinions about a set of political issues, yet another to write about them in public on a daily basis. There comes a point where one has to decide (or least I did) whether one’s goals were linked to being a partisan cheerleader or engaging in honest public exploration of one’s ideas.
While, no doubt, the changes you note above are part of your move in to the greater DC area, I think blogging (along with the shifts in US politics in the last 9 years) have influences both of us rather profoundly. I recall, for example, that you tired of Limbaugh’s shtick before I did (and it was while you were living in Troy).
And Jan steps up to prove my point. Thank You.
@michael reynolds: In your scenario, the Oligarchs would team up with the Fascists. They’d hide their funding so that the Fascists could pretend to be a grass roots movement of patriots attempting to return America to its roots while actually trying to transfer all the nation’s wealth to the super-rich while finding ways to criminalize poverty, thus rendering the poor even more powerless.
Then they’d give themselves a snazzy name for marketing themselves. Something like, I don’t know, The Tea Party.
And then they’d have hundreds of Jans out there pretending to speak for the “real Americans” while shamelessly shilling for those who want to destroy everything the country stands for, all in hopes that one of her masters will toss her a nickel for her services.
Jan…please tell us about the theory of evolution that’s out there too!!!
I find this lack of self-awareness amazing, but of course as many have noted it is a splendid example of the problem. It is cognitive and rhetorical dysfunction, spotted in the wild.
BTW, as a corollary to James’ original topic, I think it’s an interesting question to think about how much respect we should give Jan’s “dissension” on AGW.
If we answer too patiently, and allow the debate to go too long, do we recreate the “equal time distortion?” On the other hand, if we cut things too short, does it seem reasonable questions were left unanswered?
I think it must be a balance. Links to serious studies and explanations should be given once or twice, but after that it is actually important to be dismissive of bullshit.
Bullshit should not get equal time.
“While most of you repeat, like a broken record, a consensus of professional scientists believing in AGW, there is a growing consensus of professional scientists and recent scientific data directly refuting this ‘fact,’ such as the latest information gleaned from CERN and NASA.”
Only if you read political publications. Not so in the journals.
“The same is true of the Great Depression, and how old socially progressively oriented historians interpret the timeline of events kindly, in reference to FDR’s political intervention. In the meantime, newer analysis show him to have interfered with economic recovery, extending and magnifying the depression with fiscally stifling policies, many of which current progressive minds now want to impose on this country to correct similar ills.”
There is no newer analysis that does any such thing. There is older analysis that claims FDR did harm to the economy. There is older analysis showing the opposite. It has been a continual analysis with people taking positions based upon their own biases. The “new” analysis is largely the same old stuff slightly modified. Still, the fastest GDP growth in the country in the last century occurred under FDR.
On the larger topic of this post. Reporters are supposed to have truth as their primary goal. Their job is to observe an event and then record it as faithfully as they can.
That turns out not to be very profitable financially. Where we see straight-up reporting being done it’s generally shielded from ratings points and circulation numbers. The best reporting is often done by government-supported or chartered creations like BBC or NPR. The very worst reporting is at places like Fox (and increasingly MSNBC) where they’ve long-since stopped pretending to be anything other than the party organ of the GOP — No different really than Pravda in its heyday. (And spare me the supposed commentator/reporter demarcation, it’s nonsense.)
In a world where we accept that profit is the holiest of all motivations, truth has been demoted. “Savvy” is cheap, reporting is expensive. “Savvy” dovetails perfectly with propaganda, reporting tends to blur ideology. “Savvy” flatters the audience, reporting often challenges it. Cheap, dishonest and flattering beat costly, honest and challenging.
From this very interesting post what really struck me was this statement:
Do sane conservatives really agree more with Bachman, Perry, and Palin’s radical positions on the issues than with Obama’s? How can this be? Obama’s policies seem quite in line with former moderate GOP ideas to me. I keep reading OTB in search of insight to this perplexing question.
Of course, part of the problem with these types of discussions include questions of how to define “conservative” and “moderate” and so forth.
Speaking solely for myself, I find that Obama fits the mold of what I would have once considered a moderate Republican pretty closely (as I wrote here: Obama: Moderate 90s Republican?)
@Laurie: There’s something to that, to be sure.
As recently as a decade ago, I considered myself a conservative Republican–often one frustrated with the lack of ideological vigor of the party. To some extent, as noted above, I’ve moved to the left.
But, as I’ve noted in the past, the parties themselves have moved. Starting with Clinton and the New Democrats, that party moved to the center on fiscal issues. The Republicans have essentially won the fight on taxes but act as if they’re losing, pushing further and further into the dry well of “more tax cuts.” The Democrats, meanwhile, have largely won the social wars on gays, women, blacks, and the like but haven’t quite figured it out, either. The Republicans have but, rather than doing what parties typically do–adjust to the new center–are trying to wage an insurgency and get rollback. It’s not happening but they haven’t accepted that.
With some exceptions on issues like homosexuality, Jon Huntsman would have been a mainstream conservative Republican in the 2000 cycle. Now, he’s a RINO.
James I agree “who watches the watchmen?” is a good argument regarding how much we should trust media sources regarding bias, but not scientific sources. Politicians should not be allowed to have claims that have empirically falsified again and again; I’m talking about especially easy ones such as evolution and homosexuality.
However, I’m convinced that the dangers of reporter bias advocating policy they want is an overblown danger, since so many political reporters have policy aims that are exactly the same as the politicians they are covering (ie the Iraq War was good for media corporations, not so good for soldiers dying for a false cause). The Iraq War was the ultimate War for Entertainment.
Hence the bemoaning of pundits for the economically conservative, socially liberal centrist Christ figure. However, the same pundits have made politics into such a partisan bloodsport that no such centrist candidate can survive the primaries. Irony for all!
@James Joyner: I appreciate the response. From it I am inferring that you maybe don’t agree with the Palin and Bachmann more than Obama on the issues when analyzing policy is your focus, but the statement just flowed from long held ideology /party affiliation. Being against everything Obama seems to be strong driving force to the right for the GOP to me.
Not to belabor the point, but NASA and CERN have conducted no research nor issued any statement which contradicts Anthropogenic Global Warming Theory. The CERN experiment in particle nucleation (to which I assume you refer) doesn’t even mention climate change.
@James Joyner: “For that matter, it’s partly why I’ve instinctively dismissed Palin, Bachmann, and others with whom I doubtless agree on more issues than Biden and Obama as unworthy to lead.”
Do you have any cognitive dissonance over the possibility that the people “with whom [you] doubtless agree more” are “unworthy to lead?” Even if they are unworthy because they are wingnuts, part of their unworthiness must stem from what they believe.
@Laurie: “Sane conservative” may be an oxymoron.
The good thing about being an insider is you have information that others do not. The bad thing is people often are mistaken that their conclusion is right because they have information others do not. Often their conclusions and\or mentality is more due to group mentality than anything to do with the additional facts.
When people first become or get close to becoming insiders, they often think how ignorant they were and how much wiser they are now. Not until they leave, go back and leave again does it often dawn on some just how much group mentality is influencing people and not so much the available facts.
It also often influences what is important to the individuals as well. I am fairly sure inside the beltway that winning elections is the top priority to many. Outside the beltway though, it is what the elected representative do once elected that matters most.