Given that voters see and hear about election campaigns mainly through the press, and given that the press is acutely aware of this, it’s not surprising that after every national election there ensues a bout of hand-wringing, self-assessments and post mortems from the press itself. And this year the identity crisis has begun early, with Dan Froomkin, Washington Post online columnist and deputy editor of the Nieman Watchdog project, and our colleague Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor of journalism and sociology, both weighing in with withering assessments of a campaign press not up to the task at hand. (More from them a little later.)
We’ve been singing this song all year, of course. If you’ll recall, part of the original rationale for Campaign Desk was the conviction that press performance could be monitored daily, during the campaign itself — not just after the voting public had already acted on the basis of what the press had told it. We’ve tried to do that. And having done it, we’ve found there’s an added bonus to being in the trenches. Track campaign coverage day in and day out and it’s inevitable that you gather a string of particulars that eventually illuminate the patterns by which a campaign press with the best of intentions goes awry — and sometimes badly awry. So it seems to us that we owe you an overview.
We deconstruct, you decide.
But first, some scene-setting. Froomkin this week declared that one “lesson of this campaign is that the impartial, unemotional postwar model of mainstream journalism simply may not be up to covering the current political climate.” He described a press that, out of fear of appearing partisan or adversarial, consistently holds back from the instructive role of guiding readers through a sea of charges, countercharges and outright falsehoods to the solid ground of known fact, a press that fails, as he puts it, to “pierce the facade of cynically stage-managed events” and one that consequently fails in its most essential function — “to demand accountability from our leaders.”
Gitlin, writing for the November/December issue of Mother Jones magazine, hits the ground running: “All governments lie, the muckraker I.F. Stone used to say,” he writes. “They fudge and omit. They bury and muffle inconvenient facts. They do this repeatedly, relentlessly, shamelessly.” And complicit in those lies, he notes, are members of the press who respond by acting as obedient transcribers [think WMD]. Gitlin’s litany of press shortcomings wasn’t written with the campaign press specifically in mind, but it rings true.
“Many are the reasons for deference,” he writes, describing a press “[t]imid about getting out ahead of the public” and bending over backward “to accommodate spin doctors,” a press that “fears risking independent judgment, which they have defined as occupational hubris,” a press afraid that “detailing the anatomy of official distortion” will anger partisans already suspicious of bias.
“The machinery of truth-telling has broken down,” Gitlin declares, replaced by an “obsequious stenography” that “plays into the hands of liars, self-deluders, and obfuscators of all stripes.”
Thus do reporters turn themselves into parrots of the talking points of the day, unwilling to “undo the folded lie,” as W.H. Auden put it, rendered impotent by the outmoded tradition of journalism-as-transcription to confront what Walt Whitman called “the never-ending audacity of elected persons.”
And it is the readers and the viewers who pay the price.
With that, we introduce a six-part series that we’ll be unspooling over the next few days. There is campaign coverage to praise, of course, and where we found it, we’ll praise it. But we’ll be concentrating on the flaws, the ingrained habits and the institutional mandates that drive unwitting reporters on daily deadline to frame issues unfairly and to construct narratives that do not reflect reality.