October 17, 2013

The National Review’s Robert Costa has deservedly gathered a whole bunch of informal honors for his reporting on the chaotic negotiations to end the government shutdown and avert a default. Day in and day out, Costa pounded updates into his Twitter feed and NationalReview.com, creating something of a moving picture of deliberations among Republicans on Capitol Hill.

To get the feel of things:

 

 

 

According to a profile in New York Magazine by Joe Coscarelli, Costa has picked up 7,000 Twitter followers since Monday, an objective measure of his effectiveness.

What caught the eye of the Erik Wemple Blog was this workmanlike sentence from Costa, written in the heat of the negotiations: “Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) tells me he will ‘object’ to any pending fiscal deal, unless the Senate concurrently votes on the Vitter amendment, which would end federal contributions to congresional health-care plans.”

Bold text added to highlight non-inflammatory language. Consider for a moment that National Review is an organ of the conservative media, a sector that has busied itself — through the venerable leadership of Fox News — demagoguing the question of employer contributions to the health-care plans of congressional aides and lawmakers. Fox Business News’s Stuart Varney has called it a “big subsidy,” Fox News’s Ed Henry goes on about how “generous” it is, and the exaggerations and distortions only get worse. (In this post, Costa did use the dreaded “exemption” language.)

Via Costa, we get straight reporting. There’s no question that Costa’s affiliation with a conservative outlet has helped him gain entree with the Republicans whose (often anonymous) quotations spice his copy on the negotiations, a dynamic that Costa himself acknowledged in an interview by Marc Tracy in the New Republic: “Of course, and that’s obvious, and I’ve known that from the start. But it’s how I’ve developed that access. My job is connecting the dots with all these sources I have on the right. It gives me the ability to understand the language of conservatism.” (Costa declined our requests for an interview.)

Reading through Costa’s posts on NationalReview.com yields one hint as to why Republican staffers share their intelligence with the 28-year-old reporter: No snark. His posts chronicle the strategy and the proceedings of Republicans without venturing into vast and belittling judgments that populate the reporting of other organizations on the shutdown. You know the wording — Republicans are imploding, they’re reaching historic levels of dysfunction, they’re a mess, they have no adults and on and on. Folks may well reach those conclusions based on Costa’s stuff, but that’s not his problem.

What a fabulous model — a news organization that uses its ideological heritage to build a strong source base, the better to push out cold, hard facts about an emerging controversy. It got the Erik Wemple Blog thinking: Why can’t Fox News do that? Oh, yeah, Fox News is television.

Whatever the case, Costa’s background and positioning put him in an ideal spot for a story where the schisms fell on one side of the aisle. “The story was entirely driven by GOP infighting and so a smart conservative reporter with tons of conservative sources was ideally suited to explaining the movement, refereeing the fights, getting the scoops, and understanding their importance,” notes Brian Beutler, political writer at Salon who penned some prescient pieces on the negotiations.

For an example of how a lefty journo nailed the Democratic side of things, have a look at this piece by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent. Early in the clash, Sargent wrote:

The principle articulated internally is simple. Never mind delaying or defunding Obamacare — there will be no policy concessions in exchange for a debt limit that would damage Dem priorities. Republicans must refocus on legitimate legislative means, i.e., the legislative process’ normal give and take. In exchange for the debt limit hike, there will be no medical device tax repeal. No Keystone pipeline. Obama administration officials are open to the possibility of face saving moves by Republicans being part of the endgame, but only ones involving process — not policy concessions — such as the McConnell provision, a device floated last year that would have largely transferred debt limit authority to the president.

Yup.

So could ideologically driven journalism be a good thing? David Carr of the New York Times last week noted how media bifurcation was producing a country of self-reinforcing ideologues committed to talking past one another. Costa and his counterparts on the liberal political Internet, however, reflect a hidden strength in this divide — reporters who can get inside dope on politics and write it up. Perhaps all is not lost.

 

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.