Campaign reporters: you are granted no “role in the process.” It is your powers against theirs.

Forget it: there is no guaranteed “role.” That’s a fiction you and your colleagues created to keep the game the same every four years.

18 May 2015 9:34 pm 51 Comments

So Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post — whose mission in life is to explain to us how things really work in politics — is rolling along in his “Hillary Clinton is shamefully avoiding the press” column when he cries out to us:

Do you not think it is of value to know how Hillary Clinton spent her time since leaving the State Department? And how the Clinton Foundation handled its business with various donors who would, undoubtedly, still be in the picture if she was elected president? Or what she thinks of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the fight currently happening in Congress? Or Iran? Or the Middle East?

You get the idea. The role of the media in this process is to show voters who these people are, really, and to explain how these people would govern the country if elected. Like the media or not, that’s a very important role — and one that is essential to a functioning democracy. (My italics.)

The role of the media in this process? What on earth are you talking about, Chris?

You’re supposed to be our super-savvy guide to the way things are in the power game that is national politics. You are the least sentimental creature to walk that system’s halls… remember? No one can out-realism you! You’re Mister “let me tell you how it really works.” That’s your whole franchise. And yet here you are, bawling about “the role of the media” as if it had some sort of guaranteed status within what reporters (mindlessly) call the process.

Who could possibly be the guarantor of this role? The Constitution? (Grow up.) The Federal Election Commission? (Get real.) The political parties? (They’re too busy communicating over the top.) The voters? (I don’t think so.) Role in the process… Says who? The political system evolves, man. You’re supposed to track that for us. (Link!)

Check this out, savvy class:

Yahoo PR has not called me back in three years, and somehow I write. Kara Swisher isn’t lecturing Yahoo executives, users of Yahoo, or readers of tech coverage about some imaginary “role in the process.” She knows that it’s up to Yahoo executives to decide whether they want to talk to her. And it’s up to her to find out what’s happening at Yahoo, regardless of whether the company decides to talk.

“Yahoo has not called me back in three years, and somehow I write…” is a true statement about power relationships. They have the power to shut me out. I have the power to keep reporting, regardless of their efforts to shut me out. They can refuse comment. But if my stories are good enough, people will talk about them and Yahoo will be voiceless in that conversation. Is that what you want, Marissa Mayer? Game on! Swisher’s “role in the process” doesn’t enter into it.

Political reporters: You have no guaranteed “role.” That’s a fiction you and your colleagues created to keep the game the same every four years so you don’t have to go to school on how to be useful and powerful in the election system as it evolves. The fiction works if you can get the right people to believe it, but when they clearly don’t care about your “role in the process” how are you going to make ’em care? Got a plan for that?

I doubt it. I base my conclusion on columns like this from Ruth Marcus of the same Washington Post. She’s also complaining that the candidates won’t answer questions. (My italics.)

Question time, campaign officials soothe, will come. Meanwhile, why step on her message — criminal justice, immigration — by taking questions?

Um, because that’s part of the process. You can’t tweet your way to the presidency. Because reporters have different — sometimes better and more pointed — questions than voters. Because there are growing areas of legitimate inquiry — Clinton’s position on trade, for one — that merit answers. (The New York Times’ Amy Chozick offered an excellent example on immigration: “How could you stretch the law further than the president . . . says it can go?”)

Because how you behave on the trail augurs what you’ll do in office, including how accessible you’ll be. I have forebodings of future columns lamenting President Clinton’s umpty-umpth day without a news conference.

“Because that’s part of the process.” Seriously, Ruth? Your “because” is only a cuz if candidates decide that to reach the people they want to reach, or persuade the people they need to persuade, or avoid some damage they wish to avoid they now need to engage with the journalists who cover the campaign.

Reporters ask better questions than voters? Well, part the waters, here comes the press.7403734608_7c3291e44a_z

I have a better idea, journalists. Figure out what the voters want the candidates to talk about. (And when they’re ready to listen.) Persuade the voters that in your coverage you’re on their side— so many of them that the campaigns have to take notice. Then leverage your superior connection to the people the candidates want to reach. (That’s what Univision and Jorge Ramos plan to do, I’d bet.) It’s a power game, not a frozen process in which you are granted some role by the mighty hand of James Carville or Ed Rollins.

In 1992, the Charlotte Observer played it that way. They determined what the voters in North Carolina wanted statewide candidates to talk about. Then they asked about that. The opposite of “reporters have better and more pointed questions than voters.” I wrote about the Observer’s approach in my 1999 book, What Are Journalists For? Here’s the former editor of the Observer, Richard Oppel:

Voters were intensely interested in the environment… So our reporters went out to senatorial candidates and said, “here are the voters’ questions.” Terry Sanford, the incumbent senator, called me up from Washington and said, “Rich, I have these questions from your reporter and I’m not going to answer them because we are not going to talk about the environment until after the general election.” This was the primary. I said, “Well, the voters want to know about the environment now, Terry.” He said, “Well, that’s not the way I have my campaign structured.” I said, “Fine, I will run the questions and leave a space under it for you to answer. If you choose not to, we will just say ‘would not respond’ or we will leave it blank.” We ended the conversation. In about ten days he sent the answers down.

Compare: “We’ll just leave a big block of white space next to your name, okay?” vs. “Answer our questions because that’s part of the process.” Or Swisher’s “somehow I write” vs. “Hey, the role of the media in this process is…”

Look: I think candidates should engage with the press and answer tough questions, reducing the importance of any single encounter with journalists by having lots of them. The fact that they increasingly don’t is partly a sign of the news media’s diminished hold on the audience and partly a sign of weak and overly cautious candidates intimidated by a staff that preserves its own power by controlling access and message. A more freewheeling style might serve some candidates equally well, but the handlers would become less important that way so they argue against it. Shutting off almost all access has become the accepted way to win. It is not necessarily a better way to win, but it is far better for a risk-averse staff, and consultants who make money off advertising. It also persuades weak candidates that they’re fine as they are. Of course none of that matters, because timid candidates, controlling staff and an over-the-top messaging system is what we have.

Nothing about the political press makes it an inherent “part of the process.” The sooner that fiction is abandoned the better off producers of campaign coverage will be. You have to compete. Or as Jack Nicholson says in The Departed: “No one gives it to you. You have to take it.”

This has been edited from the original. I toned it down a little. —JR


Can we really expect process-obsessed pundits and reporters to abandon the process they themselves invented in favor of actually doing hard work? Particularly the type of hard work that requires them to talk to lots of actual people outside of their favorite watering hole or cocktail party in D.C.? You might as well ask the New York Times and Washington Post to stop quoting Senior Administration Official. I’ll believe it when I see it happen.

Expect? What do you mean expect?

Expect as in predict, or expect as in demand?


Tim Schmoyer says:

We’ve come a long way from disintermediation through rollback/decertification to “No one gives it to you. You have to take it.”

But the triangular relationship remains:

Rufus Jones says:

Jay, I’m surprised that you let Ruth Marcus get away with another demonstration of her contempt for citizens:

“Because reporters have different — sometimes better and more pointed — questions than voters.”

Really? Compare the “Town Hall” section of any debate to the reporter questions, and voters almost ALWAYS ask more varied, more issue-oriented (as oppose to process / horse race) and more pointed questions.

Case in point being the New York Times’ stenography about Iraq. More recently, when the HillaryBot 2016 called a press conference about not using secure email, it took 10 questions.

IIRC, seven of the questions asked it if it was running for president.

The Village fantasizes that it asks tough questions. It rarely does.

Reporters ask better questions than voters? Well, part the waters, here comes the press.

I’m surprised you call that “letting her get away with.”

Great piece, Jay! Hard-hitting and demanding that the contemporary professional press examine their assumptions. I love it. And “there are growing areas of legitimate inquiry” sounds a lot like Hallin. Hubris.

I love rant-y Jay.

At some point I had thought about starting a Tumblr collecting the worst press questions of the presidential season. Mark Halperin pop-quizing Ted Cruz on Cuban food, Cuban music. Katie Couric asking Carly Fiorina if she was really running to be hoping to be tapped as Vice President. There was another example I should have bookmarked around April 27 that was so dumb I thought about starting the tumblr. It’s a two-way street. Feeling like you can PIN someone down to who their VP will be (or if they want VP). What’s on their iPods. It would be equally helpful to curate lists of GOOD questions to ask, and what is in the formulation of a good question. But yes, there are questions voters would like candidates to answer, but I’m not sure if there’s as much overlap between those questions and the group that sometimes gets access. Then again, Jeb Bush being asked about Iraq War, what did that tell us about how he’d govern? Is that a voter-interested question?

Found this comment from Andrew of Buzzfeed interesting in light of Jay’s post. I asked him why he thought voters didn’t care but he hasn’t responded.

cahuenga says:

The press is traditionally granted access to question candidates on policy, so if a candidate is being evasive I see no problem with them holding their feet to the fire. Shaming candidates is sometimes the only way to get a response and if the press (with their access) can’t do it, who will?

Somehow I don’t think this post got through to you. Communication was not achieved.

cahuenga says:

It’s there in the tile, right?

The role of the Media in an election.

I’ll give it another try and see what I missed.

Jay, excellent point. For me, it comes down to this: Many journalists think “freedom of the press” is a right conferred by the Constitution to them. It’s not. It’s a right of the people to a free press. Journalism is less about a sacred role in a free society than it is the opportunity to serve people with the information they need — and want — to live in a democracy.

I agree with that.

Joe Katzman says:

“It’s not. It’s a right of the people to a free press. Journalism is less about a sacred role in a free society than it is the opportunity to serve people with the information they need — and want — to live in a democracy.”

Michael, that was really, really good.

Problem: the press is steadily murdering its own credibility with the voters. Politicians are sensing this. Which is part of the reason why a Presidential candidate can believe she does not have to talk to the media (the other half: her belief that when she does decide to talk, her PR people with bylines will play their assigned role).

On which topic, Repubanon… we’re way beyond the unpaid PR staff. Last I looked (*coughABC*), journalists were paying in to become PR staff.

As noted above, “selective access” isn’t the main problem. With that said, this was a great point:

“Note how John Stewart and John Oliver cover political issues more thoroughly than political reporters simply because their jobs don’t depend upon “access”?”

Speaking from the advocacy communications perspective, you can’t overstate how much the internet & online tools have changed the game on both sides here. While local earned media is as valuable as ever, why invest the time & resources to participate in The Process in DC if all you’re going to get is a he said/she said/we’ll have to leave it there story that doesn’t leave anyone better informed? And from the media’s perspective, the click-fueled need to Win the Morning often tramples relationship building. If working to get a reporter the big interview doesn’t build trust beyond one news cycle & then the reporter is right back to exploiting us/our cause for click-bait, what’s my incentive to help The Process?

I think you make several excellent points.

RepubAnon says:

The reason why candidates limit press access to carefully controlled messages is that it works in the current environment. By dangling access to selected reporters, candidates turn the press into their unpaid PR staff.

It’s not new – check out Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. What’s new is the ability of candidates to use social media rather than depending on more traditional media outlets. This has led political reporters to become little more than remoras whose survival depends upon whatever scraps that the candidate/sharks leave them.

Note how John Stewart and John Oliver cover political issues more thoroughly than political reporters simply because their jobs don’t depend upon “access”?

That is what I meant by my phrase “over the top.”

As in: …The political parties? (They’re too busy communicating over the top.)

“Because reporters have different — sometimes better and more pointed — questions than voters.”

Really, Ruth? Are you quite sure about that? The hubris in that quote is remarkable, but unsurprising.

I suppose sometimes reporters do ask good questions. But more often, in my experience, they pen useless process/horserace stories and don’t care much at all about the bread and butter issues voters ask. I’m often far more impressed with who shows at candidate events than any of the junk asked by reporters.

As you draw to your conclusion above, Jay, you mention a diminished press and cautious candidates. But I’d argue that part of why the role of the press is diminished is their caution.
What you describe the Observer doing sounds remarkably forthright and far from the DC cocktail circuit “reporting” we get served all too often in the failed access journalism model.
If journalists would show a little courage – which is hard when your source threatens to dry up if you’re “mean” (aka ask insightful questions rather than lob softballs) – but a little courage might earn some grudging respect and a few eyeballs from readers.

Re: “I’d argue that part of why the role of the press is diminished is their caution.”

I agree with that. Four years ago I outlined an entirely different premise for covering the campaign:

The Citizens Agenda in Campaign Coverage

The idea is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision. So you go out and ask them: “what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?”

Bon Hagar says:

If Hillary isn’t holding press conferences or answering your questions, quit sending the press to cover her. She’ll get the message when there’s no news about her on the tube or the ‘net.

“If Hillary isn’t holding press conferences or answering your questions, quit sending the press to cover her. She’ll get the message when there’s no news about her on the tube or the ‘net.”

I was unaware that the press controlled access to the Internet.

Blue Meme says:

I agree with your argument, and find your vitriol, if anything, too subtle. But like most folks who bemoan the sorry state of political journamalism, I think you miss the fundamental “why” — that is, why it sucks so badly.

It sucks because the path of least resistance is sucky horse-race coverage and gossip. I’d be happy to defend Ruth Marcus’ turf if she ever stood up in front of Prez Obama and said, “I spent the last two weeks studying the substance of TPP, and I have the following questions about what is and isn’t included, and the following provisions seem inconsistent with your public statements…” As long as she and Cillizza stick to only the easy crap — talking about who is talking about whether Obama offended Elizabeth Warren about TPP — fuggetaboutit.

In short, the way to show you have a role is to gain sufficient subject matter expertise — about policy, not “what people are talking about” — and to demonstrate it by holding liars accountable.

So let me get this straight: you’re saying journalists should conduct their own investigation, collect data that can be corroborated and then report the facts?

Rather than let the candidates create their own facts which journalists can then decide whether to report or not?

Isn’t that, like, so last century? You must be a Mad Man, Mr. Rosen.

GlobalTrvlr says:

That was an outstanding analysis.

If I ever get so addled that I need some big city Democrat reporter to explain things to me, I’ll kill myself.

“…big city Democrat reporter?”

To whom do you refer?

another quote:
“money ain’t got owners, only spenders”
– Omar, The Wire

The media’s credibility currency is only as good as their willingness to spend it. What passes for political journalism reflects the devalued currency of journalism.

Richard Aubrey says:

So. Do pols fail to return calls, speaking metaphorically because, 1, it’s not worth their while, 2, the press routinely accidentally or on purpose misrepresents what they say, or 3. there are other ways to talk to potential voters?

The idea that a pol would like to hear from a reporter who’d studied up on an issue is interesting. If the pol has a pretty good record of speaking clearly about it and has no potential gotchas in other communications about it, I suspect he’d welcome the opportunity.

But, as has been said before on this site, journos are generalists and a two-week swotting up might not get the journo where he needs to be. That would leave asking questions from incorrect premises, and the pol trying to explain them, looking evasive. Nobody wins.

Blue Meme says:

Actually, I’d welcome a world in which pols NEVER welcome questions from a reporter. THe relationship should be adversarial. If Bush or Obama had faced a room full of Glenn Greenwalds at press conferences, there would have been fewer of them, but boyoboy would the remaining scenes been useful.

Richard Aubrey says:

Eventually, a pol will have an issue on which he is a straight arrow and has nothing to hide. It would be useful to him–more than likely–to get that story out to the public. If every reporter was asking gotchas, including false premises, I suspect the pol would try some other method. False premises come from ignorance or are deliberate. In neither case is a pol going to look good–it’s difficult to correct the premise of a question although Gingrich does it pretty well–and not come off looking shifty.

While I certainly agree that the superficial horse race/Win The Morning scooplet race does a grave disservice to the idea of journalism as facilitator between the voters and a candidate, that’s not what the DC press corps types have as their objective anymore. It’s all about leveraging their access to power into social capital and ideally, actual capital by impressing competitors/future employers. Reporters are clearly now as much part of the kabuki theater of politics as the politicians only they are dishonest or self deluded like Marcus about it. To be fair, they dont have the Eric Cantor K St. featherbed to land on if they lose their job, so it’s a daily battle to stay atop the greasy pole. I suspect most will abandon the horse race when they’re not rewarded for it.

William Ockham says:

Today, Jason Leopold had a huge scoop on the Panetta CIA torture report and Bloomberg describes him (in a story about Clinton’s emails) as ‘describes himself as a reporter’. After a bit of Twitter sarcasm, they updated the article. Hey, Washington press, Leopold uses FOIA and ‘shoe leather reporting’ to make his own place in the process.

I feel like I just saw you at the Passive Voice 🙂 Fellow travelers…

The vision was for more than a free press. It was for a vigorous press, and for an adversarial press. The media have spent the past seven years making themselves irrelevant to “the process”. Why do they now complain about being irrelevant?

This post may be the first time in recorded history that anyone has linked to an older Chris Cillizza piece. I had always believed that his work was so ephemeral that it radioactively decayed into nothingness within hours.

Yes. Pushing the envelope on ephemerality.

eric says: