Is political reporting dying?

June 3, 2013

Technology killed the political reporter.

That's the idea Frank Bruni explored in a terrific piece in the Sunday New York Times titled "Who needs reporters?"


Anthony Weiner and a whole lot of reporters. REUTERS photo.

In the piece, Bruni uses Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann's decision to announce her retirement via an eight-plus minute video -- as well as other video-announced decisions by the likes of Anthony Weiner and Hillary Clinton -- as evidence of a growing trend of politicians using the available technology to end-run the media filter.

Writes Bruni:

"To get a message out, they don’t have to beseech a network’s indulgence. They don’t have to rely on a newspaper’s attention. The Bachmann, Weiner and Clinton videos are especially vivid examples of that, reflections and harbingers of an era in which YouTube is the public square, and the fourth estate is a borderline obsolescent one."

Frighteningly true. And, it's not just You Tube that has allowed politicians to cut out the mainstream media. Flickr allows the White House -- via official photog Pete Souza -- to tell a very carefully crafted visual story of the Obama presidency.  Twitter/Facebook/Google chats allows the President to speak directly to his supporters, giving them a message uncluttered by the media "lens". The rapid rise in partisan news outlets means that politicians -- in both parties -- almost always can find a friendly home for material without the worries of how a neutral news outlet might handle it.

Then consider the power of aggregators when it comes to how people consume news. For the average person (and even for many political junkies) all links are created equally -- no matter whether they come from a trusted independent website/news organization or not. (One senior political operative told us several years ago that "a link is a link". He's right -- and that flattening of content has only increased over the past few years.)

As Bruni notes in his piece, many people celebrate this diminution of the media's role as a deserved punishment for our bad behavior. Sure, there are bad reporters. And, yes, the tendency to consider every story as a mountain (no molehills exist anymore) is detrimental to our long-term job of educating the public about what matters in their lives and why.

But, consider the alternative. Without a robust and independent media, politics would turn into a straight marketing campaign: A candidate presenting a carefully-tested image of him or herself designed to appeal to the largest swath of voters. Would the image being sold actually bear any resemblance to who the politician actually is? Who knows? There would be simply no way of finding out. You Tube videos don't answer back.

Again, Bruni gets it right.  He writes:

"Politicians answer to all of us, and have a scarier kind of power, easily abused. So we must see them in environments that aren’t necessarily tailored to their advantage. We must be able to poke and meddle. It may not be a pretty sight, and we journalists may not be doing it in a pretty way, but eliminate that and you wind up with something even less pretty."

Yes, yes and yes. Modern politics is populated by candidates and campaign handlers who do everything they can to avoid any unscripted moments. Technology allows them more control with fewer downsides to achieve that goal than ever before.  But, true character -- in politicians and in all of us -- comes out in those moments when we are forced to go off script, to improvise, to do something or say something we might not have expected to do or say.

(Sidebar: The great genius of the late Tim Russert was his ability to push politicians beyond their talking points and get them to say what they really meant.  Russert's questioning of Hillary Clinton on drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants during a debate in 2007 signaled the start of a long fade for the former First Lady in the presidential contest.)

There is no question that reporting is under assault by a political class that understands the benefits technology affords it to end-run the traditional (and even not-so-traditional) media. No matter your partisan leanings, that should be a scary notion.

Electing people to the highest and most powerful offices in the country (and, in some cases the world) should mean that voters get the whole story before making up their minds -- not just the story a politician wants them to hear.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics
Next Story
Chris Cillizza · June 3, 2013