Debating the state of American political journalism

Last week, blog-innovator and Adirondack Almanack editor John Warren wrote a scathing critique of political journalism in this election year, arguing that reporters — like myself — are failing the American people.

We are “ignoring the issues and perpetrating the lies of machine candidates.”

He compared this cabal between journalists and politicians to the Tammany Hall fix that existed in 19th century New York City.  ” You, dear political reporters, are now holding the keys to the hall.”

You can read John Warren’s full critique here.  Now let me share some thoughts about how he’s right, and how (I think) he’s for the most part really, really wrong.

First, I do think that journalism is in crisis in America.

The fundamental business model has been destroyed by the digital revolution, so that once venerable institutions like Newsweek are fading away or shutting down.

That means fewer trained, experienced shoeleather journalists chasing big, complicated stories.

Readers and listeners may not understand this, but it often takes institutional heft to take on big political organizations.  Reporters often need to file (or defend themselves against) big lawsuits in order to crack loose important information.  That’s harder to do in a world where Big Journalism is wounded and maybe dying.

It’s also true that our approach has been weakened by the re-emergence of advocacy journalism as the dominant form of reporting in America.

From Fox News to Huffington Post to DailyKos, a growing number of voters get their information not from neutral reporters, but from activist-journalists.

Those of us who are (still) offering straight-up news are, it seems, swimming against the tide of popular taste.  It’s a good, noble fight, but on many days I’m not sure that independent, objective journalism can survive.

The good news in all this is that the media landscape has exploded in size and diversity.  There are many, many more voices on the wind, carrying information and ideas and distributing that stuff in new and compelling ways.  (More about this in a moment.)

It’s telling that the biggest story of this political season — Mitt Romney’s “47% speech” — was uncovered by Mother Jones and distributed virally (at least at first) on the web.  Conservative journalists have also used new media to push narratives they view as important.

But much of what I’ve just written belies John Warren’s claims about some kind of journalo-politio axis that is working against the interest of informing American citizens and voters.  The concept is, on its face, bosh.

There is no such thing as monolithic “mainstream” journalism and there is no such thing as a single ideologically homogenous ruling class in America.

His argument relies fundamentally on a hard-liberal view about American politics which is factually, demonstrably false:  the idea that both major political parties are essentially one single plutocratic entity.  Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are, he argues “two thoroughbreds with the same owner and trainer.”

This is not an argument about journalism.  It’s Warren’s argument that journalists should adopt one particular (and particularly bad) narrative about our two major political parties.

Take our current presidential race.  Anyone examining the political histories of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will know that their actions and their policies differ in material ways that will have substantive impact on the lives of real Americans.

To cite one example:  Pro-choice voters are convinced (rightly, I think) that Obama would appoint supreme court justices over the next four years who support maintaining legal access to abortion in the US, while pro-life voters are convinced (again, rightly) that Romney would appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade.

The two candidates also have wildly divergent views about equal pay for women, immigration, and military spending.  That is, as they say in my business, news.

Now, John Warren’s real complaint is that while focusing our attention on politicians and organizations that have the very real power to affect all of our lives, we spend little time or energy focusing on parties and politicians who have no power to do so.

He suggests that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If only we gave equal coverage to fringe candidates who do not have even a remote chance of winning elections or holding office, we would throw open the gates of power to a wider range of ideas, and a broader class of people.

It is the argument of an activist, not a journalist.  Our role (at least in my old fashioned corner of journalism) is to tell true stories about what is happening, not to encourage certain things to happen.

As I’ve said before, if the Green Party wants to mobilize an interesting, compelling, vibrant national campaign — following in the footsteps, say, of the Occupy movement or the Tea Party movement — journalists like myself would certainly cover it.

In his essay, Warren suggests that we should focus considerable attention on the views of Green Party candidate Jill Stein and allow her to take part in all the major political events, including debates and forums.  But why?

From her official bio, her only elected or political positions held in the past is that she “has twice been elected to town meeting in Lexington, Massachusetts. She is the founder and past co-chair of a local recycling committee appointed by the Lexington Board of Selectmen.”

The fact that Stein is running on the Green Party line is little more relevant than if she claimed to be running on the Purple Party line.  The Greens have little history of winning races at even the most local level.  (My search for elected Green officials turned up a few small-community mayors across the US.)

The bottom line is that Warren conflates the roles of journalists and activists, and he misunderstands (rather badly) the ways that political power functions in America, as illustrated by his chief complaint here.

Yes, Stein is irrelevant in the 2012 presidential race.  That may be a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s not because reporters failed to cover her election or her recent arrest.

One final point.

In the new media landscape, there is absolutely no reason that Warren’s Adirondack Almanack can’t cover political issues, local, regional, or national.  Yet a search of the Almanack’s archives appears to find no mentions — zero, not one — of Jill Stein’s candidacy before this essay was posted criticizing other outlets.

Search under “Green Party” and you’ll find that every couple of years, Warren mentions that organization as part of a scold aimed of other media.  “Why are you ignoring the Greens?” But then, in the intervening years, he drops them entirely from his own radar.  No coverage, no discussion, no interviews…nothing.

(I may have this wrong.  I’m relying on Warren’s search engine for my data.)

So here’s my (yes, tongue in cheek) question to John Warren:  If you are in the know about all the cool, interesting tings that Jill Stein and the Greens have to say to the world, why are you covering it up?










61 Comments on “Debating the state of American political journalism”

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  1. Yes, I have opinions about candidates. While I have journalistic training, I’m not presently a professional journalist. My blog is polemical, not journalistic. My comments are opinions, not journalism. I understand the differences.

    But many established journalists accuse bloggers of being hacks and amateurish, and you think smaller party candidates should first be vetted by them?!

    Yes, you have editorial standards. I say you should change them. The whole point of public broadcasting is to offer points of view not lowest common denominator enough to air on commercial broadcasters. To air views of people like the Greens and Libertarians and other smaller parties are EXACTLY what public broadcasting should exist for. Instead, we get the same views we get everywhere else, just at a lower volume.

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I’m just happy the Green Party can provide a few nuts to make JDM’s day.

    JDM, I’ve been to some Green meetings and there are plenty more nutty Greens out there, pun intended.
    One thing in defense of the Greenies – they are usually smoking pot when they say nutty things, is that true of the Tea Partiers too?

  3. Larry says:

    OK, HT, having just watched the final debate, I know where you get your rhetoric from. Obama is all about blame, criticism and personal attacks. For as much as he has told us about the mess Bush left him, you’d think he would have sized the problem by now. Four years in and he’s still getting his head around the problem? It’s taken him four years to get unemployment to where it was when he started, as long as you don’t count the under-employed and discouraged. Osama bin Laden is dead, we’ve been reminded of that ad nauseam. I thought Liberals were peace-loving folks who abhor violence. Must be different when that’s your guy’s only observable accomplishment. Who was it killed the American Ambassador to Libya? Somebody’s running wild! Four years of an Obama administration and all you’ve got is ObL dead. By my count al Qaeda is up three.

  4. hermit thrush says:

    larry, there’s so much ridiculousness packed into your latest comment that i’d be up the whole night if i tried to address it all.

    so let me pick out just one thing, which is indicative of the overall quality:

    Four years of an Obama administration and all you’ve got is ObL dead. By my count al Qaeda is up three.

    this is borderline idiotic. take a look at this list of senior terrorists killed during the obama presidency, current as of september 30 of last year. as you can see, it’s a long list. more major al qaeda figures have been taken out in the time since.

    larry literally has no idea what he’s talking about.

  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    “By my count al Qaeda is up three.”

    Jeeze! Talk about despicable rhetoric!

  6. Larry says:

    “despicable rehtoric” and “borderline idiotic”? As defined by humorless drones who don’t recognize the use of sarcasm to illustrate a point? There’s something inherently ugly and desperate about a President who continues to brag about killing people while also misleading the American people about the killing of our people. Taking lives, however necessary, is not something that should be repeatedly cited as proof of leadership. As Romney said, “we can’t kill our way out of this mess”.

  7. I absolutely did not scold you for giving Hassig the wrong kind of coverage. In fact, I explicitly praised you for it; it changed my vote. My scolding was for not doing more of this.

    My issue is partly your standards but also partly your seeming selective application of them. Here’s what I considered to be hypocritical.

    Let me summarize (something I admit I’m not good at).

    You stated that you will cover candidates if they are “interesting” or who “have a real impact.” By real impact, in the electoral context, I infer that to mean someone who has a serious chance to win the election. I can quibble with this rationale but it’s yours so let’s go with that.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I doubt you thought that Mike Oot had a serious chance of beating Sen. Little. Yet you treated the two as rough equals in your coverage so that voters could decide for themselves. And you were right to do so.

    I doubt that you thought Carl Paladino had a serious chance to beat Andrew Cuomo yet you treated the two as rough equals in your coverage so that the voters could decide for themselves. And you were right to do so (if wrong to ignore the others).

    You’re not really giving any coverage to this one but I doubt any of your peers think that Wendy Long has a serious chance to beat Sen. Gillibrand. Yet in the rare reporting they do on the race, they treat the two as rough equals in their coverage so that voters can decide for themselves. And they are right to do so (if wrong to ignore the others).

    And I doubt you thought Eric Sundwall had a serious chance to beat Scott Murphy and Jim Tedisco. Yet you did not apply the same standard to this long shot candidate as the above long shot candidates. And you were wrong to do so.

    If you reject better standards, at least consistently apply the ones you have.

  8. Brian M: my point about Hoffman wasn’t that you shouldn’t have covered him. Of course you should have and were right to do so. My point is that he was not a Conservative Party member. He was a Republican running on the Conservative line.

    My opinion of the fake parties Conservatives and WFP (which is not that they are irrelevant — they are quite relevant — it’s that they aren’t parties… just factions of the major parties, because they almost always endorse major party candidate rather than members of their own party) really doesn’t matter. My real opinion is that such cross-endorsements shouldn’t be allowed but that’s another issue.

    You SHOULD cover whoever’s running on the Conservative line. You SHOULD cover whoever’s running on the WFP line. And you SHOULD cover whoever’s running on the Green, Libertarian and other lines. And you should give them roughly equal coverage to the Republicans and Democrats.

    You obviously disagree with my position. I just want to make sure you correctly understand what you’re disagreeing with. Hope this clarifies things.

  9. “… just factions of the major parties, because they almost always endorse major party candidate rather…

    Correction: “… because they almost always endorse members of major parties rather than members of their own party…”

  10. Paul says:

    If you did treat all the candidates (despite their relevance) “as rough equals” you would just give a skin deep characterization of each. There is only so much time and attention span out there. For example the recent Frontline program on Obama and Romney would be, not an in-depth look at each candidate, but a quick snippet of the whole bunch and basically useless.

    Also, once you start giving all these fringe candidates air time you will have lots more fringe candidates next time and more the next and so on. Brian (MOFYC), I don’t see how it would work?

  11. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Is there something wrong with more choices? I thought that was what made Capitalism so great; we can go into a store and choose among the dozens of varieties of beer, or potato chips, or doughnuts.

    Why do you hate freedom?

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