Do you think some coverage areas are more susceptible than others to the tendency toward simplistic narratives?
Whenever you have a big group of reporters who are all supposed to be doing the same thing, or covering the same thing, you have conditions in which these narrative forms become popular and get used a lot. And in political coverage, election coverage, I think you have a special problem, which is that the campaign is sort of like Christmas decorations. You bring it out every four years, set it up, and it runs the same as it always has. And there’s an element of reuse involved in some of the set pieces. There’s a disinclination to pose questions of purpose and meaning in campaign coverage. If you ask campaign reporters, “What are you trying to accomplish with your campaign coverage?” the question doesn’t even compute. They won’t really understand the question. They’ll give you an answer like “What do you mean? We’re covering the campaign. That’s what we’re doing.” Because it is so driven by these agreed-upon routines. And the other factor is that the campaign-coverage teams are set, the budget is set, all these things are determined first, before you even know what the story is. And then you have that further complication: that presidential-campaign coverage especially is seen as kind of a marker of a serious news organization. And so it’s done because that’s something you do to show you’re a player.
It’s a status symbol.
Yeah, it’s a status symbol. So when you have that, you don’t really need an idea. Because the point is just to cover the campaign, like I said.
Do you have thoughts about how journalists can push against the tendency?
Sure. A lot of really good journalists do it all the time. I think a lot of the things that I complain about in press coverage, a lot of the repetitive things that draw my eye, like he-said-she-said journalism, often happen because the journalists involved don’t have time to do a better job, or they don’t have enough knowledge. Or they’re under some sort of pressure that prevents a more serious story from emerging … A lot of times, repetitive narratives, or lazy narratives, or devices like he-said-she-said are substitutes for real knowledge. So in this piece I wrote about he-said-she-said … I treat it as a problem in press criticism, but it’s also a solution to a problem, in the sense that when a new study comes out and the hospital association says, Costs are decreasing, and the consumer’s group says, Actually that’s not true, costs are continuing to go up, and you have to write a story by deadline, then he-said-she-said makes it writeable. See what I mean? Then you don’t have to know who’s right, you just have to know what the hospital group said and what the consumer group said and get that right, and what the study says, and bingo, you have your story.
How does that change when a reporter has been on a beat for a long time?
Well, oftentimes you have another complication, which is that reporters want to stay in good graces with all key sources on their beat and need to avoid alienating people. Did you ever hear the term beat sweetener? It’s one of the great terms of press criticism.
Oh, man. What a great term. I didn’t come up with it; I wish that I had. So beat sweetener is a term for a certain kind of story that predictably merges when a reporter is new to a beat. Because they don’t have any sources, and the best way to get sources is to write nice things about people, who then remember you because did this profile showing what a brilliant aide they are to the House Ways and Means committee.
Oh, yeah, it absolutely works.
Yeah! I’m sure it works. So, beat sweeteners, you could look at that and try to analyze it as a story form, but it’s really a product of the reporter’s need for sources. But if you don’t know how that works, you might miss that. So a lot of things that happen are like that: They have to do with a reporter’s need for sources, or they have to do with the relationship between editors and reporters. So editors might say, “We want you to break stories, and don’t follow the pack.” They might say that, but then when you don’t have something the pack has, they say, “Why don’t we have this?” Reporters complain about that all the time. “Why didn’t we have this?” Or “Can we match this?” Which is an amazing statement from an editor, basically saying, “I want you to copy what these people did.”
It’s not necessarily for the reader.
Right. It’s not for the reader. It’s about either relationships internal to the news organization, or to sources, or sometimes to peers in the profession. As, for example, with the Pulitzer Prize–winning story that tends to emerge in November, December.
Speaking of November… Do you think the press played a role in Trump’s rise?
Well, of course it played a role … But is the press responsible for the Trump phenomenon? No, that’s kind of stupid. But it doesn’t mean they had nothing to do with it. I think it’s useful to see Trump as very much like an independent television production company that has a hit show called Trump. Or Trump for President. And media ownership, let’s say TV executives, want that show really badly. And this gives him more power than the network’s own people, or their own journalists sometimes. It’s almost like they would rather go for an outside source for their programming than to their own people. So because he produces this show, Trump for President, that has amazing ratings, he was able to command what was called in the trade “free media.” That’s a fascinating phrase in itself, that you should put in quotes or question. Obviously, the fact that he could generate so much free media … that is obviously a huge factor, not only in his rise and the success of his campaign, but a factor in how his campaign is structured, because it meant he didn’t have to raise a lot of money, he wasn’t buying a lot of ads … Trump, the independent producer with the hit show, was kind of irresistible.
I guess not just from an economic standpoint, but from the standpoint that it makes good copy.
Totally. It wins in the one master narrative that dominates all others in campaign coverage, which is “Who’s ahead?” It’s entirely predictable that he would dominate the coverage. Lots of people said that they gave him too much coverage, and I sort of agree that it was overboard, but when you ask yourself, “What would be the limiting principle to give Trump less coverage?,” it’s really hard to come up with one, because the horse-race narrative is so central, so basic to how the press approaches a campaign.
I’ve heard some journalists talk about how maybe one publication will individually try to ignore him, but that doesn’t seem to work.
Right — that’s hard. And look at the almost unanimous opinion today, in the press corps, of the Huffington Post’s attempt to do that: to take a different approach, like put him in the entertainment section. And I understand their criticism, but I was in favor of it. I was one of the few people who thought it was a good idea. Because this was a news organization making an independent call about how it was going to treat this phenomenon. Now, they couldn’t sustain it, and if I were them I would have changed, too, because, you know, he ended up winning the nomination. But it was an attempt to say, “We’re going to use our own judgment here, not the herd’s.”
So do you think there’s any way of pinpointing a period where things really went wrong?
I think all the intellectual action in campaign coverage is over before the campaign begins. The basic story is: “Who’s gonna win?” And then there is a sidebar story that’s also important, called “Issues.”
Maybe a subplot.
Yeah, it’s a subplot. And that is so routinized, and so automatic, that once you have people who all agree that that’s the way to do it, because that’s the way it’s always been done, filling all the key positions, then the action’s already over.
How do you think the changing economics of the industry — the switch to digital, the rise of social media, the advent of different kinds of metrics, where success is measured by how many clicks or re-Tweets a story generates — how do think those change the kinds of stories we get?
That’s a question that’s better answered by another question: How does a campaign journalist know they’re doing a good job? What measures could there be? And since it’s so hard to know whether you’re doing a good job, things like clicks, or ratings, can have a larger role, because it’s a very difficult thing to assess. And when you have this circular kind of reasoning — what is campaign coverage about? Well, it’s about covering the campaign! — it’s hard to know how you’re doing. And in that environment, anything that looks like concrete evidence for how you’re doing, any kind of empirical evidence, can have an outsize weight.
How do you think that plays out? Does it generate more stories about things like politicians’ gaffes?
I don’t know; we’d have to look at it carefully. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Another point to be made here is that part of the press’s job, I think, in campaign coverage, is to engage people in politics. And if people watch and tune in, for example, to the debates, that’s good! And if people are reading, and they are paying attention, and they are tuning in, even if it’s to see what Trump says next, because he’s a lurid spectacle, even that is good. So it’s much better than people who can’t stand to even hear about the campaign anymore.