Saturday, September 14, 2013

Tweeters On The Bus

One of the first of what will be many postmortems on the 2012 election was just published by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Written by CNN reporter Peter Hamby, Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus? Searching For a Better Way to Cover a Campaign could have just as easily been called A Bunch of People Who Got Paid A Lot of Money and Did Not Do Their Job Well, for in its 95 pages is the story of journalists portrayed as self-absorbed narcissists who injected themselves into the political narrative and did little else but tweet out snarky comments about a candidate (Mitt Romney) who did everything in his power to avoid interacting with them. Meanwhile, a group of highly compensated political consultants spent endless hours obsessing over 140 character snippets of ephemera that they nursed into deep seated grudges instead of cultivating the people who might have provided them with better coverage. Good times. 

Broadly, Hamby argues that the advent of Twitter and its ubiquity resulted in a poorer quality of journalism during the 2012 Presidential campaign, as reporters went for the sugar rush of a "scooplet" over the more satisfying (but harder to do) political analysis that would have better informed the citizenry. Thus, minutiae about badly constructed press risers or candidate Romney's dinner order became grist for the daily mill instead of a more sober and serious analysis of what the man might do were he elected President. Encouraging this process over substance ethos were, according to Hamby, editors constantly goading this new generation of younger reporters into multi-tasking their day - tweeting, blogging, posting video and appearing on TV to provide color while leaning on canned information (what little they received) from each campaign. 

Hamby uses 1972's The Boys on the Bus, a chronicle of the Nixon-McGovern race, as point of reference. That campaign occurred at a time when a small cabal of "bigfoot" journalists drove the narrative about Presidential politics but also had relationships with candidates and their senior staff such that reporters could get valuable information about the internal dynamics of the campaign. And while that access may have provided for more insider-y information, it was unclear to me by the end of Hamby's piece whether things were better in the old days when the entire narrative of a Presidential race was determined by 3 old white men who happened to be more experienced at journalism than their peers than it is today. 

Flash forward 40 years and the fracturing of "media" resulted in a younger, more technologically savvy scrum of reporters covering both President Obama and Governor Romney. Unfortunately, there are few heroes in Hamby's reporting. Instead, we are let inside the Romney "bubble," where little happens, even less quality reporting is done and no effort is made by (most) of the journalistic pack or the Romney communications team, to address the "toxic" (author's word) relationship between the two. Reporters come off as a Romper Room gone amok tethered to their smart phones and multi-tasking the roles of producer, editor and reporter for news outlets whose need for content is every more consuming. The Romney communications shop is portrayed as a nest of paranoids who obsessively collect snarky tweets by the very people they are keeping at an arm's length. On the other side, Obama's team operated with a cold efficiency devoid of any emotion and a thinly veiled disdain for those whose lives they attempted to accommodate through good WiFi connections, sumptuous filing center buffets and "spots" that coincided with nightly newscasts. 

The Romney campaign's post-mortem is an odd blend of denial and deflection. Romney's team claimed their bad coverage was due to the inexperience of the traveling press, but instead of trying to use that inexperience to their advantage, Boston spent its time trolling these reporters' Twitter feeds. And when the Romney team was not reading tweets as tea leaves, they were alienating journalists by barring access to their candidate and berating members of the press for having the temerity to ask questions along rope lines. On the rare occasion when the Romney team attempted to improve relations, things blew up in their face. After the September jobs numbers were released, reporters on his plane were told he would speak to them, but only if it was not on camera. The TV reporters demurred but the print media pushed back and the Romney team simply walked away. 

One of the more experienced reporters who covered Romney, Phil Rucker of The Washington Post, provided one of the juiciest quotes in Hamby's piece, noting that the Romney campaign had "opportunities to manipulate the press that weren't taken." (emphasis mine). Putting aside the idea that the media can be manipulated to serve a campaign's needs, if true, this makes the finger pointing all the more curious. I'm not sure how you can complain about poor coverage when you did not make even a rudimentary effort to give reporters access to your candidate, who went weeks without talking to his traveling press corps. Romney's camp conceded that when it was not stiff-arming the press corps traveling with their candidate (which itself begs the question why the experience level of those reporters mattered) it sought out the friendly confines of places like FOX News to move its message instead of engaging a less reflexively supportive group of reporters. But political operators cannot have it both ways - you cannot admit to avoiding difficult questions and then complain about negative coverage. The same is true of the use of social media - the campaigns created their own YouTube channels and Twitter feeds to "go over the head" of the media but whined about the use of same by the media. Huh? 

The media come off no better as they acknowledge the circus element of their own work while attempting to retain ironic distance from their responsibility for feeding into the worst instincts of modern journalism. Mark Halperin and John Harris penned a book in 2006 referring to the D.C. media as "The Freak Show," yet the former is now best known for writing a gossipy insider's account of the 2008 election (Game Change) and the latter is editor-in-chief of perhaps the worst offender when it comes to morphing the inside-D.C. game into a half-assed version of US Weekly (Politico). 

The doth-protest-too-much of media bigwigs is acute. People like Harris and Chuck Todd, NBC's chief political correspondent, are quoted at length bemoaning the incentive structure of process journalism even as they are uniquely positioned to deter much of this lowest-common-denominator reporting from the perches they occupy. Instead, they fall victim to the same "who's up/who's down" news cycle drivel that not only misinforms, but shows little interest in the nuance that is inherently part of any complicated policy discussion. Todd laments that the President does not "respect" the press corps and "treats it like crap" but where is his accountability in all of this? In reporting on salacious rumors of bogus birth certificates and providing oxygen to the most venomous personal smears that crossed the line into outright bigotry and racism? Is it any surprise that the President might not respect a person like Chuck Todd or, for that matter, all of the Politico crew who traffics almost exclusively in generating "click throughs" by accentuating the most banal aspects of political discourse? For a mea culpa, Hamby quotes Sam Youngman of Reuters, who conceded he was one of the "worst offenders" when it came to tweeting during the campaign and that it "trivialized the coverage to a great deal." Now you tell us? 

Of course, Hamby's focus on how reporters focused on the "process" of the campaign at the expense of substance would be a valid critique were the media not guilty of the same offense writ large when it comes to matters of the day. One need look no further than the consistently awful reporting being done about Syria to see how the national media is consumed with the "horse race" aspects - how a vote in Congress would "help" or "hurt" the President (as if those poor Syrians getting gassed care about these things), whether Secretary Kerry's "off hand" remark about Syria giving up its chemical weapons was a gaffe that "saved the day" (as opposed to focusing on - hey look, Syria is going to (1) acknowledge its stockpile and (2) get rid of it!) and on and on. Further, as political operatives noted, journalists are more than happy to re-package "one-sided information" and report it as news. Indeed, Harris seems to concede as much. He noted, "modern audiences expect and follow news in real-time, not on a leisurely print newspaper schedule of a generation ago." But hiding behind new technologies does not absolve journalists from eschewing "truthiness" in favor of hard reporting. The idea that somehow the "media" does any better of a job at reporting on the daily "fights" in Washington and that its failures are strictly related to being inside a campaign bubble is laughable. 

I also found Hamby's thesis inherently contradictory. On the one hand, he bemoans the lowest-common-denominator tendencies that he claims Twitter enables, but on the other, (rightly) notes that the "hive" quickly corrected erroneous reporting far more quickly than the past model of burying that type of information on page A20. Similarly, those pesky "kids" criticized by the Romney folks as inexperienced and in over their heads were also savvy enough to hang out outside a Romney fundraiser in Florida where Romney suggested shuttering the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development and eliminating the mortgage deduction on second homes. In other words, some pretty major news was reported simply by lingering outside an event that the Romney advance team didn't realize could be heard outside its gates. 

So which is it? Was the media pack a bunch of petulant children or gritty gumshoes? I was particularly struck by a comment made by AP reporter Liz Sidoti, who bemoaned the fact that Twitter encourages a certain amount of "groupthink" among reporters, wherein I wanted to yell THEN DO YOUR JOB BETTER - get out of the bubble, don't rely on daily "tip sheets," the ruminations of your colleagues, or stories being pushed by partisan flacks, .. you know, REPORT. Or more specifically, why can't we agree that Twitter, like other forms of technology, is inherently agnostic, a tool that can be used for good or bad, enlightenment or obfuscation, depending on the aim of its users. 

Hamby's conclusion that Twitter is "here to stay" also struck me as curious. How can a technology that barely made a ripple in 2008 but reached ubiquity in 2012 be presumed to be permanent. One need only look at the social media landscape to  know that what is fashionable one day (Myspace, AOL, etc.) is roadkill the next. As Hamby himself points out, "what political junkies were talking about on Twitter … was mostly irrelevant to the American populace." So how is it that a platform that only 13% of Americans use, and of those, only 3% "regularly or sometimes tweet or re-tweet news …" is having much of an impact on political discourse? When an established journalist like Dan Balz notes that "most people are not on Twitter" and that what is said there is "not necessarily reflective of public opinion …" why on Earth is a 95 page "discussion paper" endorsed by Harvard University so obsessed with it? 

You can read Hamby's study and judge for yourself:

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