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?
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.