Why Do We Suck? and Other Questions Political Journalists Asked Themselves at YearlyKos

"My readers know more than I do" had always been true, but it took the Internet for that knowledge to be forwarded into journalism. Now it's manifest in the professional lives of political reporters.
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I've been reviewing the press coverage, blogging and video from the Yearly Kos conference in Chicago, trying to make sense of what happened between the press and the liberal blogosphere at this event. My main conclusion: more respect expressed for the blogosphere, and a little less wariness between the two groups. (But let's not overstate it.)

The AP's political editor, Ron Fournier, talked to TPM Media's Andrew Golis about some of the reasons. "I'm a proud member of the mainstream media," he said. "But I also love coming to events like this and finding that I am treated very respectfully and I learn a lot from these folks."

These are people who for the first 20 years of my career read my stuff, and complained about it, and wanted to add things to it, and wanted to be a part of it, and never could because there was this big wall between me and them. Now, you know, I hear about it as soon as I push the button on a story. I'm getting emails and being blasted on blogs and sometimes--quite often--I will read something on a blog that will be a good point, something I'll add to the story or try to learn from.

Fournier has discovered that Dan Gillmor was right back in 2000: "My readers know more than I do." Gillmor, who reported on Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News, was the first mainstream newspaper journalist to have a blog. Compare what Fournier said in '07 to what Gillmor told J.D. Lasica in 2001. "I frequently hear from readers after a column, saying, 'That was interesting, but have you thought about this or that angle?,' and often the answer is no, I hadn't, so the next time I return to the subject the missing piece makes its way into the article."

Essentially the same quote. So it took five or six years, but the rest of the press is catching up to Gillmor's insight, which arose from his experience with the two-way nature of blogging. "I doubt there is a beat at any newspaper or publication or program where it is not the case that the readers collectively know more than the reporter," he told Lasica.

"My readers know more than I do" had always been true, but it took the Internet for that knowledge to be forwarded into journalism. Now it's manifest in the professional lives of political reporters, and this accounts for some of the change.

Michael Scherer of Salon was in Chicago. He wrote about an expected "confrontation between the crusty old mainstream media and the tough and truth-telling blogosphere" that didn't really happen. (It was a panel with Glenn Greenwald of Salon, Mike Allen of The Politico, Jay Carney of Time and Jill Filipovic of Feministe, overseen by Ari Melber of The Nation.) "At a few points, the crowd tried to get a fight started, by [asking] questions that amounted to 'Why do you reporters suck so bad?'"

A few years ago he and his peers would have made fun of this. Now? "I can say with authority that a lot of political reporters these days are thinking about it pretty closely." Imagine that: introspection among journalists along the lines of...Why do we suck so badly?

Like other reporters, I don't always agree with the criticisms, but I take them seriously. I try to avoid repeating my mistakes and I try to get better with each story. But the attacks on me and other writers signal something much bigger than just my work... Simply put, news is no longer a one-way process. It is now much more of a conversation between journalist and reader. Reporters at major news organizations no longer have the omnipotent authority they once had. The news process, in a word, has been democratized.

Jeff Jarvis was saying that in 2004: let's "turn news from a one-way lecture into a two-way conversation." It took three years for political reporters to get the drift, but some of them have. "Reporters across the board are being forced to look inward and question how we do our job," said Scherer.

Jay Carney is Time magazine's Washington bureau chief. Andrew Golis interviewed him too, on the sidewalk outside the party that Time threw on Friday night to promote its political blog, Swampland. (I read Swampland and I was there: good party.) "The blogosphere's critique of the mainstream media has been overwhelmingly healthy and it's made the mainstream media pay a lot of attention to details it should have been paying attention to," he said, echoing Scherer and Fournier.

He then added something unintentionally revealing of how political journalists got themselves into the very trouble that's forcing at least some of them to look inward. "Karen Tumulty and I-- we're not advocates, we're not columnists." (Tumulty, a contributor to Swampland, is Time's national political correspondent.) "It's our responsibility not to be labeled left or right."

Is it now?

"That is just so wrong," said a commenter (Lee) at Swampland, who had watched the interview. "Your job is to tell the truth." (Regardless of how it gets you categorized.)

It's our responsibility not to be labeled left or right... That's a political journalist blurting out a deep truth about his profession. Carney and Tumulty really do define their responsibility this way: to avoid what would get them labeled... especially by peers but also other onlookers-- and of course potential critics. When you actually feel a responsibility like that it not only makes you timid; but you look for opportunities to demonstrate that you are independent, not "in the tank," non-aligned, the professional skeptic. You are constantly proving your political innocence, which is a rhetorical--not an informational or truthtelling--task.

But notice that Carney's image-of-self is exactly the opposite: the columnists at Time are the rhetoricians, he says, Karen and I the "straight" reporters. I believe he is unaware of the contradiction between a felt duty not to be labeled and a commitment simply to inform. But here again his readers know more than he does.

It may take another five or six years, but eventually political journalists are going to realize that "Lee" is right and Carney wrong. It cannot be his responsibility to avoid being labeled because it is not within his power to decide what labels other people--like this guy--will put on his work. But the fact that he feels this responsibility (still) tells us something. It helps explain why Carney of Time is one of the purest horse race journalists around. For the horse race is a great way of discharging your phony--in fact, surreal--responsibility not to be labeled.

Worse than Carney on this score is The Politico's Ben Smith, quickly becoming the most annoying reporter on the campaign beat. He probably thinks he's annoying (to people like me...) because he "tells it like it is," but the real reason is that he lowers his journalistic standards in order to advertise his independence. What is Smith doing granting anonymity to a Democratic operative in a fashion such as this?

"They're so painfully craving any type of mainstream acceptance that they're prone to the crassest kind of flattery and pandering, which weakens them," said a senior aide to a Democratic campaign of the bloggers. Recalling a lavish party then-candidate Mark Warner threw at the 2006 YearlyKos convention in Last Vegas, the aide noted: "Mark Warner bought them off with a fountain and some chocolate strawberries."

It's an idiotic quote with zero informational value (because we don't know who said it) but Smith uses it anyway, I guess because he can. I was in Vegas for YearlyKos '06 and most people were stunned and confused at the party Warner threw, though they happily ate the shrimp and marveled at the view from the Stratosphere.

So "successful" was Warner in buying off the bloggers that not a single candidate dared to throw a party for the crowd at Yearly Kos this year. They didn't want to risk the criticism Warner got.

The reason that "bought them off" quote is there is not to connect Smith's account to any verifiable reality, but to advertise in a particularly gaudy fashion how not in-the-tank for the Netroots Mister Journalist, Ben Smith, is. The snark had to be anonymous ("a senior aide") because the assertions in it are too embarrassingly dumb for anyone to attach an actual name to. But Smith thinks he's clever, so he added: "Campaign officials' respect for the blogosphere does extend to speaking critically of it on the condition of anonymity." In fact he got played-- in a small way but still played.

John Harris, boss at the Politico, needs to establish some guidelines for who can anonymously trash people in his journal. Smith is abusing the practice to puff himself up as ostentatiously non-aligned; he will keep doing it until Harris stops him. Or maybe it will be his readers.

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