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September 09, 2013 11:39 AM Do Political Reporters Rely on Social Media Too Much?

By Seth Masket

CNN political report Peter Hamby has an interesting paper out analyzing changes in political journalism, specifically focusing on coverage of the 2012 presidential election. Hamby thinks current coverage is seriously lacking and thinks this has a lot to do with the relative youth and inexperience of the press corps and their overuse of social media. From the summary:

With Instagram and Twitter-primed iPhones, an ever more youthful press corps, and a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context and thoughtful analysis, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them. Any perceived gaffe or stumble can become a full-blown narrative in a matter of hours, if not minutes, thanks to the velocity of the Twitter conversation that now informs national reporters, editors and television producers.

The result is a corp of reporters who don’t know the politicians they’re covering at all and can’t get the insider information that’s supposed to be what makes them useful. The old “Boys on the Bus” model of coverage certainly had its down sides, but at least reporters knew their subjects.

I don’t think this view is necessarily wrong. But I also don’t think that the main problems with modern political journalism are the fault of young and inexperienced reporters relying too much on social media. Here are some examples of what I think is a real problem in modern political journalism:

  • Kathleen Parker, 2011: “The same things that drove liberals mad about George W. will repeat themselves with [Rick] Perry. It’s that certitude mixed with bravado. It is also, dare I say, their certain brand of manliness. Weathered, creased and comfortable in jeans, they convey a regular guyness that everyday Americans relate to. Take it or leave it, it happens to be true.”
  • David Brooks, 2012: “Why is Obama even close? If you look at the fundamentals, the president should be getting crushed right now…. He has defined a version of manliness that is postboomer in policy but preboomer in manners and reticence.”
  • Peggy Noonan, 2012: “While everyone is looking at the polls and the storm, Romney’s slipping into the presidency. He’s quietly rising, and he’s been rising for a while…. All the vibrations are right.”
  • Tom Friedman, 2013: “I don’t know [Susan] Rice at all, so I have no opinion on her fitness for the job, but I think the contrived flap over her Libya comments certainly shouldn’t disqualify her. That said, my own nominee for secretary of state would be the current education secretary, Arne Duncan.”
  • Maureen Dowd, 2013: “Even House Republicans who had no intention of voting for the gun bill marveled privately that the president could not muster 60 votes in a Senate that his party controls.”

These are examples of astonishingly bad political journalism. It is a journalism that embraces gut feelings and convoluted metaphors but is overtly hostile to empirics. But the above examples weren’t written by inexperienced punk reporters and retweeted to thousands. They were written by seasoned veteran reporters and sent out to millions. These are the journalists who dominate the op/ed pages of our national newspapers and take up valuable air time on the Sunday morning pundit shows. They — not some 25-year old stringing for Politico — are the ones who determine the narrative for political coverage and set the tone for the books that are later written about presidential campaigns.

Anyway, I’m not denying that the things Hamby highlights are problems — the people covering campaigns should be more experienced and less scandal-obsessed. But they’re not the ones committing the major atrocities today.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

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Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.
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