Missing the Bus

NYTimes overly focuses on one pratfall facing young campaign reporters

There was a silly story on the front page of the The New York Times Wednesday morning. With its title “Covering 2012, Youth on the Bus,” I almost didn’t read it, expecting a feel good story about elementary school children who had won some sort of reporter-for-a-day contest.

But then I did and discovered, these youth are actually “mostly in their 20s.” In the story, media reporter Jeremy W. Peters focuses on a group of young CBS/National Journal reporters, who he writes have stumbled onto a campaign trail made dangerous by developments like YouTube and Twitter, which can capture and make hard to forget embarrassing reporting moments.

“People are watching you,” Fernando Suarez, a CBS News reporter who covered Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, admonished the young reporters. He recounted once innocently checking his e-mail and Facebook page during a Clinton rally in Oregon. A local blogger looked over his shoulder, snapped a picture of him and then wrote an item criticizing the media for being disengaged.

“Just be smart,” Mr. Suarez added. “Now that everybody has a Flip cam, they’re looking to get you.” The young reporters nodded earnestly.
The story has already attracted plenty of criticism, and rightly so. Let’s begin:

As with many a trend piece, this one was met by a chorus of media critics asking “Is this new?” The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone quickly tweeted that David Broder—who Peters gives as an example of the bygone era of seasoned campaign reporters—actually started covering campaigns in his 20s. Just to add another example, Joe McGinniss was 26 when published The Selling of the President, for which he was given unprecedented access to Nixon’s campaign.

As Zara Golden at Mediaite also points out, Peters, himself, began stringing for the Times in his “youth”, at the age of 24.

Peters responded over Twitter to the criticism: “What’s new is training trail reporters to avoid becoming the story. Not suggesting youth is new on the bus.”

But, in the article he does:

Now, more and more, because of budget cutbacks, those once coveted jobs are being filled by brand new journalists at a fraction of the salary.

Beyond the shaky foundations, though, the article was at least as troubling for suggesting that avoiding gaffes is job one for these young reporters. It’s hard to say if this premise is the consequence of Peters’s frame, or if it’s the message elders are doling out while training the new generation. Neither option would be good news.

And granted, in today’s online media environment, the advice is worth heeding, as any journalist, including Peters, would know. But to viewers and readers of the CBS/National Journal coverage, and to readers of Peters’s story, the prime concern has to be how good the journalism is—and not the “dangers” those fresh-faced reporters will face.

The article reads like some sort of initiation rite, making the youngsters the butt of tired campaign trail jokes: Peters describes them as “dutifully taking notes” about things like how to eat and drive at the same time.

The piece is less clear on what work the journalists will be actually asked to do. Will it be eyes and ears reporting, reporting candidates’ positions on issues, and speaking with voters at events? And it is even less clear about how they will be asked to do it. There are many more pratfalls in campaign coverage than being the subject of a snarky blog post.

Frankly, what seems far more frightening than a 23-year-old reporter getting caught checking Facebook on the trail, is a 23-year old that doesn’t deeply know and understand policy; that is more attuned and prepared to ask about gaffes and gotcha moments than they are matters of substance; that can figure out the line between coverage and commentary.

Hopefully, CBS/National Journal and other media outlets have the good sense to find people that are just as prepared in this way, as they are to dodge James O’Keefe and his Flip cam.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.