Hope and change in unlikely places

Three cheers for campaign coverage from BuzzFeed and the Los Angeles Times

Channeling the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado, I’ve got a little list of those parts of 2012 coverage that none of them be missed:

Over-wrought chroniclers of the Iowa Straw Poll. Gullible reporters beguiled by poll numbers from disengaged Republicans foretelling President Trump and President Cain. Cable news producers whose frenetic sets and blood-lust live audiences turned the GOP debates into low-rent reality shows. News organizations that hyped their own national polls when it was obvious that only swing states mattered. And, of course, the credulous pundits who found deep meaning in the size of Mitt Romney’s final crowds.

But looking back on Campaign 2012, I also feel the urge to switch musical genres and Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive. Despite that sorry list above, I’m hopeful about the future of political reporting, because much of the best campaign coverage that I read all year came from two unlikely publications at very different points on the journalistic spectrum—the Los Angeles Times and BuzzFeed.

The downsized LA Times, hobbled by the Tribune Company bankruptcy and wondering what cost-cutting regimen may be imposed by its next owner, could have easily gone through the motions in 2012, offering limited and derivative campaign coverage. The ABCs of once ambitious newspapers that have scaled back or eliminated on-the-road campaign coverage are long: “A” is for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “B” is for The Boston Globe, “C” is for the Chicago Tribune, and “D” is for the Detroit and Denver papers. (Sadness prevents me from going through the next 22 letters of the alphabet).

For its part, BuzzFeed could have been satisfied with its prior niche as a click-happy aggregator of cute cat pictures and offbeat lists that go viral. When BuzzFeed hired political reporter (and now editor) Ben Smith away from Politico last December, it seemed a token gesture towards journalistic respectability rather than a precursor of anything more memorable.

Settling in to those low expectations would have been the route of least resistance. And had either the LA Times or BuzzFeed taken that path, few would have been surprised. Instead, they are my personal political publications of the year.

In offering that judgment, I do not purport to be a one-man Pulitzer jury. The campaign stories that I recall with respect and pleasure are a reflection of my sometimes idiosyncratic reading habits and the vagaries of my Twitter feed. I no doubt missed some laudable journalism along the way. And I should single out here three newcomers (at least to me) at other outlets whose work also gives me hope for the future of the craft: The Atlantic’s Molly Ball, the indefatigable David Weigel of Slate, and Chris Moody, my colleague at Yahoo News.

My enthusiasm for the LA Times’ political coverage is becoming a Johnny-one-note obsession of this column. Several times I have commended Matea Gold and her colleagues on the money-in-politics beat for their against-the-grain curiosity about how political consultants were getting rich from this $6 billion campaign year. But it was also the smartness of the newspaper’s day-to-day coverage, as shown in stories like Michael Finnegan’s fast-off-the-mark reporting from Ohio about how the attacks on Bain Capital were hurting Romney. And the paper displayed impressive journalistic self-confidence in debunking obvious lies and misstatements in the middle of news stories, whether they were Donald Trump’s birther rants or Romney’s post-election attack on Barack Obama’s purported “gifts.”

BuzzFeed, meanwhile, was continually surprising in its melding of traditional journalism with only-on-the-web creativity. McKay Coppins, the BuzzFeed reporter on the Romney plane, used his proximity to the candidate’s entourage to file insightful stories on everything from GOP nominee’s backstage courtship of Donald Trump to the campaign role of Tagg Romney, the candidate’s son. He also wrote movingly this week about his experience as the lone Mormon reporter traveling with Romney.

BuzzFeed also commissioned historian John R. Bohrer to spend long hours in the archives documenting the myths about George Romney’s 1960s political career. And after Bill Clinton brought down the house in Charlotte with his improvised riffs, BuzzFeed published a delightful comparison of the ex-president’s advance text and what he actually said in his Democratic Convention stem-winder.

Not too long ago, I worried about the economics of 21st-century campaign journalism, as we had entered an era when a fast blog item on a new Colorado poll might get more online clicks than three days of intense reporting from the Denver suburbs. Obviously, the Grim Reapers from the accounting department are still out there.

But what 2012 taught me is that quality political reporting can flower even in forbidding or unlikely terrains. So, without getting too maudlin, let me lift a glass to the campaign reporters and editors at the Los Angeles Times and BuzzFeed, who this year embodied hope and change in journalism.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.