Political Journalism Sucks

Ever wonder why political journalism in the US is, by and large, so terrible? Maybe you’ve already answered this question for yourself. In that case, this post will be redundant! But if not, read on.

A piece was published on Gawker today that offers a timely highlight of a central problem. 

While it may be true that the political press doesn’t always write exactly what Clinton would like, emails recently obtained by Gawker offer a case study in how her prodigious and sophisticated press operation manipulates reporters into amplifying her desired message—in this case, down to the very word that The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder used to describe an important policy speech.

The emails in question, which were exchanged by Ambinder, then serving asThe Atlantic’s politics editor, and Philippe Reines, Clinton’s notoriously combative spokesman and consigliere, turned up thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request we filed in 2012 (and which we are currently suing the State Department over). The same request previously revealed that Politico’s chief White House correspondent, Mike Allen, promised to deliver positive coverage of Chelsea Clinton, and, in a separate exchange, permitted Reines to ghost-write an item about the State Department for Politico’s Playbook newsletter. Ambinder’s emails with Reines demonstrate the same kind of transactional reporting, albeit to a much more legible degree: In them, you can see Reines “blackmailing” Ambinder into describing a Clinton speech as “muscular” in exchange for early access to the transcript. In other words, Ambinder outsourced his editorial judgment about the speech to a member of Clinton’s own staff.

It’s worth checking out the link for yourself to learn the specifics. My purpose here is not to pick on Clinton (or, indeed, send traffic to Gawker, of all places), but to fit this into a broader puzzle.

An Atlantic article from 2010 draws us a bit closer:

The overlap between colleagues and friends, already more pronounced in Washington, D.C. than any other city I’ve observed, is intensified by the fact that standards of loyalty are complicated. It is expected, if lamentable, that ideological movements label fellow travelers to be betrayers of the cause, or useful idiots, on certain occasions when they engage in honestly held disagreement. Even more insidious, however, is the notion that by criticizing someone’s book, or questioning the findings of their research, or calling out their employer, one is betraying a friend, or even an entire circle of friends.

So much about Washington, D.C. incubates that fraught culture: its smallness, a social calendar organized around events with ideological affiliations, the combination of high rents, staffers right out of college, and free food provided by think tanks at lunchtime round tables, group house living, happy hour networking, the fuzzy line that separates journalism and activism, the people who cross back and forth without lengthening their commute, etc.

To be fair to Washington, D.C., every industry town frowns upon, for example, singling out a colleague or personal acquaintance for public criticism. In Washington, D.C., the special problem is that magazines, think tanks, and political discourse generally require forceful disagreements, intellectual honesty, a self-conscious tension of being part of something and apart from it, and staffers with a willingness to be persuaded, following reason and evidence where they lead.

All those elements are necessary if the ideological institutions founded to benefit the polity are to succeed, maximize the benefit to America, and “do no harm.” Otherwise there are just the trappings of magazines, think tanks, and political discourse, conjured to make the propaganda go down easier.

The concentration of almost all movement jobs in Washington, D.C. creates the social dynamic I’ve described, making it the hardest place in the United States to run an honest ideological enterprise, even as the same trend solidifies DC as the only American city where a policy shop or an outfit seeking political influence can succeed. So many have tried to do the job from elsewhere, and eventually relocated.

 

It’s not hard to see how this environment leads to journalists who are cautious about biting the hands that feed them.

Most politicians don’t control access directly–they have staffers for that. Such staffers are often politically ambitious themselves, but also green enough to worry about pissing off their boss. This means nobody gets access unless they’re well-vetted and promise to play nice. You inadvertently leave the Congressperson you work for to face uncomfortable questions from a journalist, and you’ll be looking for a new job in a hurry–probably not in Washington, since word gets around quickly.

Journalists know this, too, and know that getting the inside scoop directly from elected officials and their agents is often the only way to keep your job and stay in touch with the halls of power. You can’t report anything if no one will talk to you, and you don’t land interviews by developing a reputation for playing hardball. The classic humanizing, redemptive interview holds no interest for a politician who has survived free of scandal, and they certainly aren’t going to help create one by opening up to a reporter with a predilection for digging up the dirt.

This leaves the functioning of our political discourse–indeed, our political system–in a serious bind. As Congress becomes more ideological, so do the journalists who cover it. Fox News gets access to people that MSNBC doesn’t, and vice versa. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but that’s how it’s turned out. Not only does it allow politicians to get away with too much, often using media outlets practically as their own PR machines, it allows those politicians and journalistic enterprises to fabricate their own distorted realities. If you’ve ever spent a few minutes watching Fox News (and I pity you, if so, as I pity myself), it’s not hard to notice the Bizarro World character of what’s reported and discussed. (If the previous sentence makes your eye twitch, you may have stumbled across the wrong blog on your way to Breitbart.) While MSNBC doesn’t nearly sink to such depths of intellectual bankruptcy, its talk show hosts do have a tendency for going off the rails and playing a bit loose with the facts. Either way, proving your ideological loyalty is how you ensure your future in the world of Beltway politics.

One of the most oft-repeated critiques by conservatives and Republicans is that the “mainstream media” pushes a contrary, false agenda–that it is unabashedly liberal, and as a consequence, lies incessantly to the American public. The truth of the matter is rather more troubling: Fox News is “mainstream media” at this point, and so are the vacuous talk shows and sheepish newsmags that are more like reality show entertainment than serious reporting. Such spectacles would be tolerable if they were kept to the margins, but as the centerpieces of our political dialogue, they make a mockery of both journalism and democracy. The trivial is treated as profound–witness the literally thousands of articles and commentaries on Marco Rubio’s “robotic” debate performance this past Saturday–while more serious matters, like Chris Christie repeating the vicious lie that Planned Parenthood is “selling baby parts on the open market” barely ranks more than a handful of fact-checking listicles pulled together by people who must be exasperated enough to question why they’re even doing this anymore.

Even more frustrating is that there’s no solution in sight for any of this, except to be highly skeptical of American news sources in general. Our political press and our politicians have formed an incestuous dependence on one another, which serves their own goals and careers more than it does the needs of the voting public. Given the money involved, it’s not poised to fade away anytime soon. And yet, the further from the action a writer is, the less reliable their narrative. It seems an impossible situation. Nevertheless, there is still need for responsible citizens to be informed, and such efforts are too easily stymied by a media culture that emphasizes flash and maintaining political ties over uncovering worthy stories and reporting the facts, rather than the words they are fed by the politically connected. About the best one can do is consume a variety of sources, keep their conflicts of interest and biases in mind, be aware that there’s no way to know all of an individual or organization’s loyalties, and try to synthesize a reasonably clear picture of the reality. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.

Photo by The U.S. National Archives

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James

James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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Political Journalism Sucks

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