Politico Takes On the ‘Tick-Tocks’

Mike Allen and Alexander Burns had an interesting piece at Politico yesterday on the art of the “tick-tock”—that staple of political journalism in which reporters purport to narrate the process by which some important event unfolded. Their article notes that, in their deconstructions of President Obama’s decision-making on the war in Afghanistan, both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times featured the same supposedly key moment—a remark made by Obama at a Situation Room meeting on Veterans Day, after a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. Allen and Burns write:

The tidbit neatly serves both the press and the White House: The reporters appear to be getting a juicy scoop – the sort of take-you-there detail that might turn up in a Bob Woodward book years after the fact. And the president’s aides are dishing an irresistible illustration of a take-charge president’s proactive approach to his decision to commit 30,000 more troops to a war that has begun to look like a quagmire.

The comparison to Woodward is interesting, as his books are widely regarded as posing a sort of epistemological challenge to readers—they’re packed with detailed information, but to really understand what it all means, you’ve got to suss out why and how this information came into his possession. And later, we learn that the prominence of that scene didn’t happen by accident:

Obama aides pushed — “shopped,” as reporters cynically put it — to multiple reporters a description of a chastened president returning to his deliberations after a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. One reporter, who had resisted the description as too pat, was amused to find it as the lead of The New York Times account.

Allen and Burns also offer some historical context on how the “tick-tock” came to prominence for both competitive and practical reasons—and how media outlets have, in the past, attempted to come to grips with the form’s inherent reliance on sources who are not exactly independent:

White Houses quickly learn to exploit this hunger, and serve up details that bolster the message they’re trying to send. In Bush’s first term, both The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post became suspicious of his aides’ string of accounts of how detail-oriented and take-charge Bush was behind the scenes, and pulled back from writing tick-tocks that relied too heavily on White House anecdotes that could not be verified.

As the challenges of governing continue to take the sheen off of our current president, and press fatigue with his administration’s message discipline increases, we may eventually get to that point again. Until then, these tick-tocks will offer often-valuable details—but will require some healthy skepticism on the part of readers.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.