Long post to come, but an important one. The horrible job so much political does in covering presidential elections is a scandal to our democracy. On that note, fabulous piece by Jay Rosen quite accurately titled, “Everything That’s Wrong with Political Journalism in One Washington Post Item.” Not surprisingly, the item was from “The Fix” the Post’s blog that is their equivalent of Politico (all game, all the time). Anyway, I think he absolutely perfectly captures what’s wrong with the professional inside-the-beltway press corps:
The Politico has the first newsroom that is built entirely on the savvy worldview. I have written about it many times:
Savviness! Deep down, that’s what reporters want to believe in and actually do believe in— their own savviness and the savviness of certain others (including operators like Karl Rove.) In politics, they believe, it’s 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 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—that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political—is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it.
Praising “political acumen” while putting questions of accuracy and context to one side– this is the essence of the savvy outlook.
Damn– spot on! I’ve not come across Rosen’s writings on this before, but I’m going to follow him now, as that really gets at the ultimately pathology of modern media. The “liberal bias!” stuff is just a bearded lady who only has a mustache in a tiny little tent next to the big top in comparison.
Rosen also points to Alec McGillis‘ excellent piece on the same matter. Love this fabulous quote (first quoting from the Fix):
The problem is, the gray area is just too gray. Fact-checkers are great (especially ourGlenn Kessler), but as long as either side has an argument to justify its attacks, the history of politics dictates that it’s all fair game.
Romney’s team is exploiting that fact — to the credit of its political acumen, if not its strict adherence to accuracy.
Ah yes. If only there was someone whose job and calling it was to ferret out the truth of such things, to provide some context for voters. Let me think, there must be someone we can think of, a profession of some kind perhaps, sort of like a researcher but also a communicator…
Nothing like some wicked sarcasm. Rosen also highlights this terrific response:
A reaction to all this at US News by opinion editor Robert Schlesinger.
The Romney campaign’s gambit plays on two things: One is the instinct on the part of the press to treat such disputes as he-said-he-said in the name of objectivity (hence much coverage of the welfare ad as being Team Romney charge followed by Team Obama retort with little discussion of the facts).
But underlying the cynical belief that they can game the press is an even more contemptuous and condescending belief in the basic laziness and stupidity of the American people.
And finally, Rosen leads us to this piece in the Economist blog which has got to be one of my favorite blog posts ever. This paragraph is absolutely key to understanding the modern political media:
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, suggests that political journalists aim to look high-minded by making both sides look bad. I think the motivations are far more trivial. Balance is easy and cheap. In political journalism, a vitriolic quote from each side and a punchy headline is all that is needed to feed the news machine. Who cares if substance and analysis are thrown to the wind? Journalism is a commodity. There is always a need for more “inventory” on which to place ads. Journalism, real journalism—the pursuit of truth—also creates inventory, but not as much, and it is difficult, costly and time-consuming. Far easier to bolt together a few pieces of trivial comment from political pundits and move on. [emphasis mine]
Combine this explanation with Rosen’s discussion of “savvy” and you are 95% of the way there in understanding the failure of modern political reporting. There are, fortunately, some great journalists these days who don’t fall for this crap. Truth is, most of them are bloggers with a strong understanding of policy. That’s why I learn far more from the blogs I read than the typical story from the Times or Post’s finest.