“You might not like it, but it’s smart politics.”

'Twas the savvy style that led the political press astray. By the time Trump showed up, they were too far gone to realize it.

28 Sep 2020 9:08 pm 14 Comments

Recently someone asked me why, in facing up to the realities of the Trump presidency, the press has not broken with some of its more destructive habits  (For what I mean by “destructive habits,” see James Fallows in The Atlantic). This post is my answer to that question. Well, one answer. It’s not a simple story. My description here is just part of what happened to leave the press unprepared for Trump. As we saw with the release this week of a massive investigation into his tax returns by the New York Times, the investigative “wing” of the same press has done far better than the @whca cohort who are responsible for reporting on the day-to-day.   

They hitched their star to the political class— and for balance both sides of it. They learned to look at politics the way the masters of the game do. In the cultivation of this sensibility, which I have called the savvy style, they took rather too much pride.

They wanted to be undeceived themselves, and they had the idea of schooling readers, viewers and listeners — the attentive public — in what it takes to get elected, to be effective, and to “win” at a game played by insiders.

You might not like it,” they preached, “but it’s smart politics.”

People like Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin built lucrative careers on that kind of statement. And in putting forward their proposition — it might be ugly, but it’s good politics — they lost sight of what drew them into journalism in the first place, which was to even the scales between insiders and outsiders.

Nine years ago I described the savvy style this way:

In politics, our journalists believe, it is 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, thoughtful 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 is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are…

Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passion, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit. The savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you.

A kind of mutation in the code of newsroom professionalism, the savvy style flourished during a period in American politics when the system felt stable and the two parties stood roughly similar, but with different philosophies. Its symbolic high point was a story they still tell about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill getting together and cutting a deal. (Chris Matthews — “Let’s play Hardball!” — wrote a book about it.) 

This was politics the way the savvy mind understood it. Sure, the parties stood for different things, but in the end two people who knew the score and had the power got together to make it happen. That’s how things get done in the real world, and it’s the job of the journalist to let the public in on such secrets.  

There’s a book you can still buy that conveys this attitude. It’s called The Power Game: How Washington Works. Listen to the promo: “Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith goes inside America’s power center in Washington, DC to reveal how the game of governing was played in the 1980s.” That’s what I mean by the savvy style. Without anyone thinking it through, or deciding it shall be so, this became the dominant style in political journalism: to explain how the game was played.

And then it all fell apart. In the 1990s the Republican Party started to reveal its present self with Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House, Fox News as culture war headquarters, the Clinton Impeachment, Bush vs. Gore, cooked books in the case for war in Iraq, the Tea Party’s rebellion against a black man in power, the rejection of moderation after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 (despite a frank autopsy the party had conducted on itself), the collapse of immigration reform, followed by the Birther movement, and finally Donald Trump’s capture of the party and attempt at autocratic rule. (Yes, I am leaving a lot out.)

None of these things fits the script of roughly similar parties with different philosophies winning elections by appealing smartly to the “vital center.” The savvy style was in crisis, but almost no one in the trade seemed to realize it.

In 2012, two solid members of the Washington establishment, Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, tried to warn them: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics,” they wrote. “It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

You might not like it, but it’s smart politics… was helpless to describe a party “unmoved by conventional understanding of facts.” Strategy coverage, both sides do it, who’s up and who’s down, winners and losers, controversy of the day, access journalism, “we’ll have to leave it there”… all these forms were spectacularly ill-matched to Donald Trump when he emerged as a threat to American democracy.

The press had drifted too far off course. It still identified with the pros who knew how the game was played. But the pros were themselves under attack in Trump’s style of resentment politics. Journalists trying to cover him discovered they were hate objects, useful for keeping his supporters in a state of pop-eyed rage. Nothing in their playbook had prepared them for that; they are still trying to recover from the shock of it. 

To wrap this up, here are five changes in political journalism that would pay immediate dividends. 

  • Defense of democracy seen as basic to the job.
  • Symmetrical accounts of asymmetrical realities seen as malpractice.
  • “Politics as strategic game” frame seen as low quality, downmarket, amateurish— and overmatched.
  • Bad actors with a history of misinforming the public seen as unsuitable sources and unwelcome guests.
  • Internalizing of the “liberal bias” critique seen as self-crippling, a historic mistake in need of correction.

They hitched their star to the political class. Now they have to recover their connection to a live public. Who’s up and who’s down won’t cut it when democracy itself is losing altitude.


Madeline murphy says:

Very appreciative of your work and clarity to help me think about the quality of coverage i read. Next big question for you is who, how and where do you see the best examples of those four bullets? And why oh why can’t there be a day of reckoning for those who still use the savvy style?

Jane Whitaker says:

Ditto Madeline’s questions!

Defense of democracy seen as basic to the job. This project from the Guardian is a good example of that.

Symmetrical accounts of asymmetrical realities seen as malpractice. Daniel Dale, fact checker for CNN, does a good job with this.

“Politics as strategic game” frame seen as low quality, downmarket, amateurish, silly— and overmatched. I have always admired the writings of E.J. Dionne for this reason.

Bad actors with a history of misinforming the public seen as unsuitable sources and unwelcome guests. Rachel Maddow does a good job on this one; she never has those people on. (Well, almost never. She had Kellyanne Conway on…)

Chris Darling says:

The problem with Rachel Maddow in specific and with MSNBC in general is that there is a clear rule, never spoken, that Bernie Sanders and anything that smacks of socialism is too far out there to ever get fair coverage. Ed Shultz was fired for endorsing Bernie in the same way that Phil Donohue was fired back in 2003 for being against the Iraq war. After all, too much socialism is not good for the bottom line.

Chris Hayes occasionally dabbled with backing Bernie, but he, too, would be gone if he were to do more than that.

It’s the Hallin Sphere’s rule: Policing the boundaries of the Sphere of Deviance.

But, to be fair, it’s a bit more subtle than how you present it. Maddow is not so much unfair to Sanders in her coverage, she simply downplays him & others like him. She’s much more focused on foreign policy, for example, and her reliance on conventional national security types–without voices like those from Lobelog (better luck, perhaps under Quincy Institute banner?), Foreign Policy In Focus, or Tom Dispatch–is a better indicator of where her blind spots lie.

As for MSNBC, the fact that it’s overrun with Republicans & Republican refugees from Joe Scarborough in the AM on, pretty much speaks for itself.

Bob Green says:

Thank you—I really appreciate your work! I assume that most of this dynamic is determined by network bosses and newspaper publishers, and rank-and-file reporters are mainly acting in accordance with standards that are set for them by the higher-ups. As such, these unspoken standards reflect the values and priorities of plutocrats and corporate executives, not journalism professionals. Is that correct?

“They hitched their star to the political class. ”

They firmly joined the political class and picked a side.


Richard Bell says:

I would like to see a bit more attention paid to social aspect of the seduction of journalists by the powers that be. Journalists became part of a kind of “high society” mixing journalists, lobbyists, elected officials, and corporate executives. High-paid journalists aspired to live in the same posh neighborhoods in NW DC, send their kids of the same high-priced private schools, spend their vacations at the watering holes of the politically powerful (Martha’s Vineyard, etc.). It’s not surprising with all this socializing that the urge to do the hard work that any kind of critical or investigative journalism requires.

Nancy Imperiale says:

Thank you, Jay!

When the massive layoffs began in 2007. I watched thousands of great journalists lose their careers. EXCEPT for political reporters. They seemed immune to the miseries the rest of us suffered because of this perceived savviness. One of my colleagues was celebrated as “unsinkable” because he kept finding jobs. I was a feature writer purged early and made to feel like a bitter loser because I couldn’t find a job and “remake” myself. I kept knocking on journalism’s door but then monsters answered.

Work at a small weekly that turned into a pro-Trump propaganda outlet? Take the job of a colleague who’d been laid off? Are you kidding me? Collaborate with big media, then, become a freelancer! Really? The vulture capitalists who purged all my friends, I should now collaborate with them, Poynter?

Meanwhile the j schools keep churning them out. That hasn’t helped. Cheap talent that won’t talk back or cost us in benes will win the day every time with front offices that don’t care about journalism.

I still care about it. Even though it abused me and thousands of others. Like many abuse victims, I remember the good that drew me to my abuser. Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Wouldn’t it be something if political reporters did that?

I hope other journalists of the 80s, 90s and 2000s are writing memoir like me. We will eventually tell the sorry tale of how the thing we believed in turned its back on us, then destroyed democracy. I will buy all those books.

Bryan Winchell says:


As a guy who went into journalism with high ideals for the profession and a potential career in it after graduating from a top journalism school in the 1990s but who gave up the career in the early 2000s because I saw much of the writing on the wall that your comment reflects and I didn’t have the gumption to put up with it, well, first I feel your pain (speaking of the 1990s!) and second, yes, I also still care about it and feel that the decline of journalism is as much the lede of the neoliberal era as is the corruption of the political system by Big Money.

Anyway, good luck with your memoir. I also will be eager to read books by those members of the Fourth Estate who had enough integrity to end up as “collateral damage” in this war on a functioning press.

Nick Cipollone says:

Your 4th change- the “known bad actor” rule- is untenable, and will require modification. In our current political situation nearly all, if not entirely all, Republican politicians of any real stature qualify as bad actors. There, I said it, and it isn’t really arguable. I can’t really help with suggestions for such modifications- a habit of very much more aggressive challenges to factual falsehood seems like a good start, but obviously doesn’t go far enough.

Mike Ratrie says:

Untenable for whom?

Imagine having citizens as guests who expressed their concerns as opposed to political “leaders” telling us what we should be thinking and how to see everything in zero sum blue v red terms.

If that’s too far for you, how about having an unreliable guest on with the warning that if they’re unreliable during the segment, it will end and the host will go on with a full explanation of why this guest is unreliable and won’t be coming back.

Fred Raymond says:

What Bob Green says above (Sep 29, 1:23 PM) is worth noting. My experience is that when I have an issue with somebody, the real problem is their boss’s boss’s boss.

Joel Vanderkolk says:

I’ve been complaining about the media being responsible for the rise of the anti-democratic Trump since before the election of 2016, and this is the first cogent analysis on why the mainstream media got sucked into his agenda and modus operandi. Thanks, Jay. Keep it up.