The savvy turn in political journalism

And why I continue to criticize it.

17 Jan 2022 6:32 pm 14 Comments

For 15 years I have been writing about what I call the savvy style in the American press. This post is about the moment when a journalist goes there. Or refuses to.

But first: what is the savvy style? This is from 2011:

In the United States, most of the people who report on politics aren’t trying to advance an ideology. But I think they have an ideology, a belief system that holds their world together and tells them what to report about. It’s not left, or right, or center, really. It’s trickier than that. The name I’ve given to the ideology of our political press is savviness.

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.

In 1992, the Charlotte Observer, influenced by a similar project at the Wichita Eagle, decided to change the way they approached election coverage. Instead of savvy takes on the state of the race, they would try to connect the campaign, and the candidates, to what voters said they cared most about. They called this approach “the citizens agenda.” Its centerpiece was a simple question: What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?

By putting that question to as many people as possible — and by listening carefully to the answers — the Observer’s political team could synthesize a kind of agenda, or priority list for campaign coverage that originates with the voters, rather than operatives, candidates, donors, or editors.

The citizens agenda model called for journalists to pressure the candidates into engaging with the problems that voters said they wanted to hear more about. This sounds simple and obvious until you realize that it also means de-emphasizing controversy of the day coverage, and the latest turn in the horse race.

All that is background for a little story I want to tell you from thirty years ago.

The characters in it are Richard Oppel, then the editor of the Charlotte Observer, and Terry Sanford, then the incumbent Senator from North Carolina. (A Democrat, he ended up losing in November.) In their replies to “what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?” voters had brought up environmental issues a lot. The Observer wanted Sanford to respond to the voters’ concerns. Here’s how Rich Oppel recalled it:

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 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.

For me the key moment in the story is when the sitting Senator says, “that’s not the way I have my campaign structured.” This was a signal for the savvy mindset to “click” into place. What’s the strategy there? There must be a reason Sanford doesn’t want to talk about the enviornment now. It’s the kind of thing a journalist wired into the campaign apparatus wants to know. And if you can’t know, you can speculate.

Maybe Sanford was wary of criticism from environmentalists during primary season, but confident that his record would contrast favorably with a Republican opponent. Uncovering the logic of these maneuvers is what savvy journalists do. Which is why I’ve characterized their style as, “you may not like it, but it’s smart politics.”

Rich Oppel did not go there. He rejected all that. His focus was not on the candidate’s maneuvers, but on getting answers to voters’ questions. Rather than use the Charlotte Observer’s pull to find out more about Sanford’s campaign tactics, he deployed the threat of a blank space to extract answers that would help readers cast a more informed vote. After all, what can your average voter do with “that’s not the way I have my campaign structured?”

At this point you may be wondering: why is Jay telling us this now?

One reason is that the citizens agenda model never died. A few days ago, this appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

We don’t change mayors very often in Milwaukee. But with Mayor Tom Barrett departing to be ambassador to Luxembourg, Milwaukee will have a new mayor after the April 5 election.

There is an opportunity for fresh thinking at City Hall — thinking that ought to be informed by city residents.

To learn what’s top of mind for voters, the Ideas Lab in collaboration with WUWM 89.7-FM, Milwaukee’s NPR, and Milwaukee PBS launched the Citizens Agenda Project.

We’re asking this question:

What do you want the candidates for mayor to be talking about as they compete for your vote?

Another reason I tell you this story from 30 years ago is that the savvy temptation still thrives in American journalism. It’s as strong as ever.

Greg Sargent, columnist for the Washington Post, points out how Republican opposition to protecting voting rights through Federal legislation has become a natural fact, part of the background of political life in Washington, rather than something journalists might probe and inquire about.

As Democrats once again debate whether to end the filibuster to pass protections for democracy, a deeply perverse dynamic has taken hold, one in which Republicans enjoy a hidden benefit from being entirely united against such protections.

Precisely because this GOP opposition is a foregone conclusion, Republicans are too rarely asked by reporters to justify it. This in turn causes that opposition to become accepted as a natural, unalterable, indelibly baked-in backstop condition of political life.

Realistically — which is a golden word in the savvy style — Senate Republicans will not consider any action that protects the right to vote or encourages more people to vote. So it’s up to the Democrats to pass such legislation, currently called the Freedom to Vote Act. That’s politics!

But realistically is not the same as justifiably. And as Sargent points out, “The bill would require states to allow no-excuse absentee voting. Despite claims otherwise, there is no evidence that mail voting advantages either party. It simply makes voting easier for everyone who chooses to take advantage of it.”

So the question for Republicans is: why not make voting easier for your voters and everyone else’s? What justifies the GOP’s opposition to no-excuse absentee voting? And do their explanations hold up under scrutiny? That’s politics too. It’s called reason-giving. Journalists ought to be pressing for those answers, but in the savvy style “realistically” is allowed to push “justifiably” out of the frame.

Which is why I continue to criticize it.


Michael Bales says:

Thank you. I hope the citizens agenda model catches on. But unlike the savviness approach, it takes more work and a commitment to public service. I’ve yet to see any national political reporter put a GOP senator on the spot and ask why he or she is opposed to voting rights legislation. Or a better question: why do you oppose making voting easier?

Patrick Hennessey says:

A similar point would be to stop sending “political reporters” to the White House. Send ones that actually write about the environment, economics or whatever. And no, I didn’t come up with this idea (forget where I read that).

Great read. This piece immediately reminding me of a recent hair-pulling exchange I saw on CNN involving Biden’s voting rights speech last week. Jake Tapper, a frequent contributor to the savviness complex, asked Democratic Delaware Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester if Democrats are being hypocritical by only complaining about it being hard to vote in “Red States”?

Nowhere in that conversation was there a mention of: 1) the difference between states with pre-existing laws remaining steady in their election administration versus states actively changing formerly laxer administration to be more difficult, 2) how Federal legislation would apply to ALL STATES and make administration uniform across the Nation or 3) how the rush to make voting more difficult is coupled with documented evidence of state leaders knowing and desiring disproportionate impacts on communities of color. But man, was Tapper pretty damn savvy in pointing out the potential hypocrisy of Democrats–leaving viewers perhaps wondering if Democrats have ulterior motives behind their legislative efforts!

Andre Sharon says:

Might this make sense to you? Democrats are saying publicly that without the expanded voting rights our democracy will die. If taken at face value that seems pretty much like an existential threat. If they really believed that wouldn’t they do everything in their power to make it happen? So, you have to conclude that all the Democrats don’t want to expand voting rights everywhere. What Democrats would be hurt by expanded voting rights in their state? Would a Democratic Senator support something making it easier for a Democrat in another state but harder for them in their own state?

Greg Dunlap says:

There is a framework in the content strategy industry called Top Tasks, that is often brought to bear when building out websites. You poll your users about what their top tasks on the site are, and use that information to build towards what the users are actually looking for rather than any other agendas. This seems to mine the same ground and I love seeing it used in other contexts. More info on Top Tasks here:

Andre Sharon says:

The idea that the reporter is supposed to “help” voters make a decision by revealing a candidate’s positions on issues important to the voter doesn’t make sense. Voter’s opinions of the issues are diverse, confused, inconsistent and often opaque. It imagines voters as independent of the politics. Reporters end up applying the same savvy analysis to the voters opinions as they do candidates.

What problem is this new way of reporting trying to fix? You expressed a goal: “Part of a call to action for an alternative direction in election coverage…” Prof. Rosen, I’ve read your opinion about what to change but I’ve not seen anything about why we should. Do you not like the people being elected? Do you not like the policies they enact? You focus a lot on 2016, which means you focus on Trump’s election. Are you saying that a citizen’s agenda would have stopped Trump’s election? Millions of his followers are citizens and they believe he’s the one to address their agenda.

Is it that you are worried about your profession? I was a very low level radio journalist for a few brief years after college in a small New England town. I made no money and the stories I covered were small potatoes. I recall feeling important though. Getting into technology was better for making a living. My best friend and his wife were Columbia journalism grads. He was a city editor, then managing editor at a major city paper. She was a senior reporter. Both left the profession in their fifties in the last decade. I can’t help thinking much of the complaining by journalists are about changes in the profession itself, or maybe the changes in the world they cover.

For me, if there is a problem in journalism, its the same problem as we see in our food. People are carrying around too much weight on both their bodies and in their minds. Cable news and 20 ounce soda’s do the same thing. To be healthy have the discipline to avoid both.

The kind of reporting I would value is that which was smart enough and had the character, I won’t use the word savvy, to tell me why Democrats are not passing legislation that they say is essential to save democracy. When the powerful have all the power they need to do something but then don’t do it you have to conclude they really don’t want to do it in the first place. A journalist that says it’s two Democratic senators holding things up is no journalist at all.

Glad you’re a former journalist.

While the above comment makes an interesting point at the end, it is in a sense the same broad observation inferred by this article: the US political class largely ignores the national good, public goods, and voter preferences. It is true that the Dems during this term both seem incapable of enforcing party discipline, and have left it very late to try to secure voting rights. As usual they appear not to have understood their position, are simply complacent, or both.

The article is imho correct about political reporting, which over the course of my life has devolved to a form of sportscasting.

Ultimately the fact is, bad journalism on policy is both a symptom of, and a sustaining factor in, the US slide into what is sometimes called “managed democracy”.

In celebrity journalism, ranking with one’s peers is paramount, for outliers risk being pushed outside the inner ring, which is the real quest for the species.

I’m persuaded by the logic in your nuanced, detailed rebuttal.

Mark J. McPherson says:

“The citizens agenda” is a good, aspirational ideal. But it seems premised in a serious consumption of news in a way grounded in the past, when people would watch TV news for 20 minutes a night or read their preferred paper in the morning. Time and print/screen space was at a premium, when people read or watched what they were keenly interested in or preoccupied with. Sure, you’d then scan for some human-interest or if-it-bleeds-it-leads prurient interest, or some amusing diversion. But the paradigm was informing and not primarily entertaining oneself. That kind of ‘citizen’s agenda’ was steady and dependable but not the business-model stuff of 24/7 cable or 24/7 website.

There still is a demand and even a space for serious journalism and journalists but all indications I’ve seen are that all of the attention and the overwhelming amount of resources will continue to go to personalities, practices and programs that will draw and affix eyeballs by whatever means necessary. I suppose this stuff, to different degrees, has been going on since pre-War Father Coughlin on the radio, no less the rise of talk radio, cable news, the internet …. where the business chases where they think the audience will be.

If you posit a rational news audience, with considered ideas about what really interests them, almost by definition, these will be the type of people who will not be obsessively, manically and continually tethered to the news platform of their choice. Assuming that such a rational group amounts to a mass audience, that same rationality, once they have informed themselves of what interests them, will move them away from their phones, keyboards and TV’s and get about other things.

The only way, outside of the centrifugal pull of an acute crisis, to keep an audience sticking their eyeballs to coverage, is constant cycling of varying tropes and triggers, largely unbound by reason, consistency, coherence or journalistic principles.

I have followed JR’s observations of the “test cases” where the signs that the citizens agenda might be compatible with a functioning business model. I just think that part of pursuing a more comprehensive “citizens agenda” is giving up on the dream of a captive mass audience all day long. Who walks away from that?

I dislike endless horse race reporting on politics. I’m issue oriented but understanding policy isn’t easy to understand, while inserting ideology into it by voters and reporters is. I love good explanatory journalism but it’s rare and is often colored by reporters biases. The questions for these project were drawn from a tiny, self-selected share of the population and then selected, and pre-selected in the form offered, by reporters and editors. This could be better done, more representative and more carefully considered through through something like deliberative polling.

Lia Harmon says:

I think everyone, including the good professor, is losing a crucial focus: What motivates the journalist to shape her reporting in any fashion, from any given? Does the reporter understand herself as an elemental force in democracy, serving citizens? Or as just another functionary, plugging away to pay the bills? Let’s not forget the foundational discussions of these questions undertaken by the late Jim Carey when you were still a reporter in Buffalo. By the way, speaking of foundational sourcing, could you please offer us citations for the quotes here in grey boxes? Even if you’re quoting yourself, it would be a grace to know the original context.