Sally Buzbee, who takes over as executive editor of the Associated Press from Kathleen Carroll in January, has served as Washington bureau chief for the past six years — meaning she has guided the wire service’s coverage for at least the entirety of the 2016 presidential election campaign. When the 2020 campaign rolls around — like, tomorrow — what advice will Buzbee give her colleagues?
“We tried super-hard to not make the horse race the entire focus of our coverage, and I think we succeeded, and we are going to redouble those efforts,” said Buzbee, referring in part to an AP series titled “Why It Matters,” on policy topics ranging from voting rights to energy. “We’ve got to dive into the issues and we have to talk to voters, but we will absolutely double and triple those efforts.”
Sure, the AP does polling, but not the who’s-ahead-now sort of polling. “We do very good polling that is more focused on policy,” said Buzbee. “We don’t think the best use of our resources is horse race polling. That’s a deliberate strategic decision.” And a pretty good one, too, considering that pollsters are undergoing an industry-wide scramble to figure out how they screwed up polls in critical state after critical state after critical state — such that the Nov. 8 presidential election victory of Donald Trump came as a shock to Americans.
Asked about what she intended to do as the top boss as the AP, Buzbee responded in much the same way as any news executive these days. “I’m going to focus on keeping AP’s mission and our standards as strong as they have been, and presenting our journalism in ways that our audience and customers need.” Example, please? Buzbee cited a chorus of demands from AP members for faster news bits. So: “As soon as we get news, we pop it out short and fast; it works for our digital customers,” she said. A lot of those customers are sucking wind: Recent weeks have brought news of layoffs and cutbacks at newspapers around the country, continuing a trend of a decade-plus. Does the AP stand to benefit from the hollowing-out of newspapers? “The pressures on the newspaper industry in the United States are obviously an incredibly important issue for use. The AP is diverse enough, I think, and has a range of customers that we have a future, but it is absolutely 100 percent our desire and goal to help newspapers survive in the future. … But we are here for the long haul regardless of how people consume news.”
People consume quite a bit of news on social media, a reality that slapped the AP in its collective face in a critical stage of the presidential race. The organization published a tweet based on an investigative story it had done on the meetings that Hillary Clinton had held as secretary of state. “More than half those who met Clinton as Cabinet secretary gave money to Clinton Foundation,” the tweet partially stated. That was an exaggeration — and even though the Clinton campaign bugged the AP about the matter, along with certain media critics, the AP kept the tweet aloft for two weeks. Then it deleted it and issued appropriate corrections. The replacement tweet was more precise: “AP review: Many of the discretionary meetings Clinton had at State were with people who gave to Clinton Foundation.”
The Erik Wemple Blog has seen it over and over again: News organizations move through the process of denial and grief and rebuttal and stubbornness very slowly. It took the Associated Press — a wire service — two weeks to clean up its Clinton-tweet act. What can a news executive such as Buzbee do to shrink the correction turnaround time? “Obviously news organizations are made up of humans and have human foibles. … The most important thing that a thing that a news organization [can do] is be as flat as possible so that if someone thinks a story’s not solid or the journalism isn’t quite cooked, they feel empowered to raise their hand and raise an alarm,” said Buzbee.
*On the anti-Semitic backlash against journalists: “We have to keep our journalists safe in Mosul and we have to keep our journalists safe in Washington, D.C.,” said Buzbee. “I obviously don’t think journalists that are trying hard to report the facts should be targeted.”
*On the AP’s use of automation to produce certain coverage: Here, Buzbee was careful not to come off as a grand champion of auto-news. “If there’s something that can be automated so that our journalists can be focused on a deeper journalistic task, that’s where our focus is. It’s a valuable tool but a limited tool.”
*On the value of polling in light of recent problems: “I think polls are important data points and important information and knowledge. My only beef is I don’t think they should the only thing that attention is paid to in campaigns.”