When the Washington Post reported in May that as a teenager Mitt Romney had bullied a fellow student in his high school, it struck me once again how much political journalism has changed since I left the newsroom eleven years ago.
It wasn’t that the Post scrutinized Romney’s record as a high school student. Fox News went back even further during the 2008 campaign when it ran with a false report that Barack Obama had attended a radical Islamic school as a child. No, what struck me was that early in my daily newspaper career, serious broadsheets like the Post wouldn’t have handled an anecdote like this one in such a breathless way. When the same paper broke the news in 1984 that Democratic presidential aspirant Jesse Jackson had referred to Jews as “Hymies” and called New York “Hymietown,” it was buried in the thirty-seventh paragraph of a 2,477-word article. Contrast that with the article the Post broke on its website on May 10 and published on page one of the paper the following day. The 5,500-word piece on Romney’s high school days started with a vivid eighteen-paragraph account of how the future presidential aspirant led a “prep school posse” of classmates who chased down a “soft-spoken” and presumably gay student to shear off his recently dyed hair. A story like that—one that received more than 84,000 thumbs-up on Facebook—could “win the morning,” to borrow the motto of the Post’s inside-the-Beltway competitor Politico.com.
Presidential campaigns offer useful mileposts for examining changes in the news media, and this year’s campaign shows how the demands of a never-ending news cycle—pumping up web traffic, getting attention on social media, and finding something new and interesting to say amid the repetition of nonstop cable TV news—are shaping political coverage. As Fox News and MSNBC have shown by largely forsaking news in favor of one-sided commentary, a sharper, more negative tone that appeals to partisan instincts can build a loyal audience. Openly biased coverage is one path to success in a fragmented media marketplace. Quick hits, a profusion of obviously partisan commentary, and frequent exaggeration of the importance of minor developments: all are on display in media coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign. One need only recall the circus-like coverage of Donald Trump’s Romney endorsement to see how ridiculous it can get. (“It’s not like he’s a Kardashian or anything,” American Journalism Review editor Rem Rieder quipped.)
And yet, there is also plenty of evidence that journalism is still fulfilling its vital role in a democratic election. While articles about political campaign coverage usually bemoan the end of in-depth reporting, the lack of attention to serious issues, and the media’s refusal to challenge political falsehoods, the truth is that there is an enormous amount of strong, non-partisan coverage—far more than any one person could hope to follow.
One can debate whether it’s necessary or fair to run a long article about Romney’s high school “pranks”—or a piece, like one that appeared the New York Times, on Ann Romney’s fondness for riding horses. Politico editor Jim VandeHei and columnist Mike Allen sniped at these articles in a May 31 piece that said the Post article on Romney as a mean-spirited preppie “was invested with far more significance than it merited.” They added, “Republicans cry ‘bias’ so often it feels like a campaign theme. It is, largely because it fires up conservatives and diminishes the punch of legitimate investigative or narrative journalism. But it also is because it often rings true.” VandeHei and Allen used a tactic media critics often employ, turning a couple of stories into a trend. But they also did something most media critics fail to do: they gave space to lengthy responses from editors at the Times and the Post. These responses reminded readers of the depth and breadth of both papers’ coverage. The Times’s political editor, Richard Stevenson, wrote:
Since the very first stirrings of the 2008 campaign, the Times has exhaustively and aggressively covered nearly every aspect of Barack Obama’s story. To suggest that we’ve pulled our punches or tilted coverage in his favor or against his opponents just is not supported by the facts.… Two days after we published the dressage piece, we ran a 6,000-word report on Obama’s management of the anti-terrorism fight. We’ve done fresh and exclusive reporting about aspects of Obama’s record that no one else has examined, like Gardiner Harris’s look at the politicization of the FDA. On campaign finance, we broke the news that in the rush to raise every possible dollar, the Obama campaign had accepted money from questionable sources. We undertook a major investigative project to examine the link between campaign donations to Obama and access to the White House.
The Post’s national politics editor, Steven Ginsberg, responded similarly:
In early 2007, before [Obama] had even declared his candidacy, the Post ran a front-page story about his drug use. Earlier this month a Post-created searchable database of White House visitor logs produced a front-page story about the president’s close ties with lobbyists. In between, the Post has produced innumerable stories about the president’s background and record, whether they be on his early days in Hawaii or questions surrounding Solyndra. Our coverage of Governor Romney has been equally broad and aggressive and will continue to be so. Our story about Romney’s high school years was a detailed, nuanced look at that aspect of his life. We have also written about his college years and will continue to tell readers everything we can about his life and the experiences that have shaped him. No doubt these sorts of stories anger some partisans on both sides, but they are critical to explaining and revealing the two men who want to be president. Rather than bias, these kinds of stories are the essence of quality journalism.
Whether or not one approves of journalistic forays into the private lives of candidates and their families, it is clear that there is plenty of meaningful, fair-minded campaign coverage for those willing to look for it—contrary to what a lot of ideologically biased media criticism will tell you.
Of course, there is still reason for concern about the quality of the coverage. Staffs at mainstream news organizations continue to shrink, and veteran reporters are the most likely to take buyouts. This makes for a serious loss of institutional knowledge in newsrooms, and many observers have remarked on the inexperience of the campaign press corps. Furthermore, many financially pressed newspapers have closed their Washington and statehouse bureaus, leaving them less prepared to cover political campaigns. At the same time, controlling campaign officials have made it increasingly difficult for reporters to interact with candidates, who are eager to avoid making the kind of gaffes journalists are likely to jump on. Both campaigns have refused to permit their staffers to be interviewed unless reporters agree in advance to let the campaign approve any quotes that are used. In what some (including me) consider a violation of journalistic ethics, reporters have agreed to these conditions, with the tacit approval of their editors. According to a July 15 New York Times article, this means that the quotes readers see have been “redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language, and anything even mildly provocative.” The censored, self-serving spin of campaign flacks makes for predictably dull campaign coverage.
Much as the blogosphere started to matter in the 2004 campaign and became an important battlefield in 2008, Twitter is now a major campaign front. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism examined 20 million “tweets” (the messages posted to Twitter.com, which are each limited to 140 characters) and found that Twitter discourse on the presidential campaign is even more intensely opinionated and negative than the blogosphere. The pithy putdown reigns. You may not follow Twitter, but politicians and political journalists are immersed in it. As a result, it is making the political conversation more immediate and meaner. It would be so twentieth-century to wait until the thirty-seventh paragraph of a story to mention a politician’s gaffe.
Reporters are under pressure from their editors to feed this new-media beast. The attempt to get attention in a medium where the conversation is more negative than in traditional news coverage is bound to affect the way reporters approach their work. Some journalists do manage to tweet without coming across as unfair, but others risk going the way of Joe Williams, a Politico reporter who lost his job over statements he made about Romney on Twitter and MSNBC.
As a daily reporter and editor from 1978 to 2001, mostly for New York Newsday and the Associated Press, it took me years to be comfortable doing broadcast interviews without fearing I’d say something that might sound biased. The trick is to be analytical without being opinionated. The facts count, even if they don’t “win the morning.” Nowadays, even beginners are expected to blog, tweet, and do radio or television interviews in which they are pressed to be opinionated. That creates pressure on young journalists to cater to partisan appetites. At the same time, supposed media watchdogs—actually, partisan political activists—are scrutinizing the work of individual journalists as never before, even building cases against them in online forums with the aim of showing the public their work is biased.
To their credit, some major news organizations have become more aggressive about sorting out political fact from fiction and opinion, analyzing claims made on the stump and in campaign ads more quickly and thoroughly than in the past. The old reluctance to do this—partly the result of a misguided understanding of journalistic objectivity—is falling away. This trend follows complaints that the press was too slow to scrutinize the “swift boat” ads attacking John Kerry during the 2004 campaign; it also follows the flood of negative advertising that resulted from the Supreme Court’s decision to lift important restrictions on political spending in the 2010 Citizens United decision.
The St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its PolitiFact.com, which examined 750 political claims during the 2008 campaign. Others have followed suit. Notably, the Washington Post has designated one of its best reporters, Glenn Kessler, as “The Fact Checker.”
Of course, such efforts are themselves subject to partisan criticism, unavoidable in the midst of a presidential campaign. Still, it seems that reports of the death of facts (see, for example, Rex W. Huppke’s brilliant “obit” in the April 19 edition of the Chicago Tribune) are greatly exaggerated. And just as the internet has made bad journalism easier, it has given good reporters a new tool. One often hears from journalists that it’s more difficult to produce meaningful work because staffs are smaller and the workload has grown with the need to feed breaking news to websites, blogs, and social media. But at the same time, the internet has made it much easier to gather information—to check a candidate’s record or previous statements, to review campaign donations or corporate disclosure filings. As a cub reporter, I would sometimes burn half a day visiting a federal courthouse or government office to find a file I needed. Now the same information is available immediately online.
In that way, at least, it’s now easier than in the past to do what journalists are supposed to do in a democracy: hold political candidates accountable to the public. The importance of this function was brought home to me last year when I taught an online course for the New York Times Knowledge Network on covering elections. Many of the students were journalists in the Middle East, some of them in countries experiencing their first democratic elections. So when a Tunisian journalist signed off at the end of class with word that he was rushing off to cover a news conference, what has become routine in the United States suddenly seemed thrilling again—the chance to ask a politician the questions that need to be asked. To do this well serves democracy. But those who have the public’s ear and offer it nothing of value fail in their duty as journalists.