The national news media in this country is facing a couple of really big challenges right now. One is that not enough people are reading/watching. The rise of the internet has given people all kinds of alternatives. And that means that the business model most media outlets have relied on for years no longer provides the financial resources they need to continue functioning as they have in the past.
Secondly, one of the reasons people aren’t reading/watching is that the American public has lost confidence in both the print and television news media. Gallup places that confidence at an all-time low of about 20%.
That’s why it was so interesting to watch last week as some national political reporters had a bit of a hissy fit about Hillary Clinton not answering questions from reporters. The line was pretty much: How DARE she?! After we dug up “scandals” related to emails and donations to a charitable foundation that might suggest some sort of impropriety! How dare Clinton not answer our questions and how dare the public not care?!
I’m not sure that playing the outraged “poor me” is a great way to win back readers/viewers. What’s worse, at least two of them – Chris Cillizza and Ruth Marcus – went out of their way to say that reporters ask better questions than voters. I love how Jay Rosen responded to that.
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…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.
(OK, so he dates himself a bit with references to Carville and Rollins…the point still stands.)
Ryan Cooper takes Rosen’s assessment one step farther.
As Jay Rosen points out, the carping is pretty rich coming from elite political journalists, most of whom pride themselves on being cynical, ultra-realistic, savvy interpreters of how politics works. (Setting aside the fact that the great majority of such people merely ape the elite conventional wisdom, and are often badly mistaken as to political mechanics.) The members of what Rosen calls the “Church of the Savvy” are getting a big taste of their own cynical medicine, and they’re retreating into the kind of righteous objections about democratic integrity that they scorned for decades…
The other reason I have little sympathy for campaign reporters is that it’s far from clear that they were actually providing anything of value even back when candidates were answering their questions. Instead of concentrating on what has to be the most important question — “how would you govern as president?” — they typically pose inane questions about process, the horse race, or gaffes. Even Tim Russert mostly aimed for pointless gotchas.
I’ll take Cooper’s analysis and raise him. It’s not just campaign reporters. I was reminded of my own reaction when I watched President Obama’s year-end press conference last December. I remember thinking how this one felt more informative and substantial than the usual round of “gotchas” that we’ve come to expect (don’t take my word for it, click on the link and read for yourself). Towards the end, it began to dawn on me that the President was exclusively calling on female reporters. That meant that none of the questions were being asked by the male correspondents from the major broadcast and cable news networks. I suspect that the substantial tone had less to do with the gender of the reporters than the fact that these women weren’t looking for a simple soundbite to use in their two-minute spot on the nightly news.
Of course, the next day media analyst Howard Kurtz said that in the press conference President Obama had taken a victory lap and easily handled questions that were “bland, tentative or rambling.”
I’m not saying the press has to be prosecutorial toward the president. But a full-dress news conference is a rare chance to ask aggressive questions that are honed to knock the commander-in-chief off his talking points.
In other words, a “full-dress news conference” is a rare chance to ask “gotcha” questions rather than inform. It’s not that political reporters should be stenographers for either candidates or elected officials. But certainly we can do better than simply trying to create a gaffe moment over and over again. For example, how about attempting to actually understand a politician’s viewpoint on an issue by asking tough probing questions and then report that to the public – along with facts and information that might either support their position or challenge it?
I don’t know if an approach like that would actually get more Americans to read/watch the news. But it might just raise our confidence in political reporting as a way to gather information rather than play a game – which would be a start.