c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
In Timothy Crouse’s seminal campaign book, “The Boys on the Bus,” the crusty political reporters settle on the story they will tell the world at the end of the day.
For modern political reporters, the end of the day never arrives. There is no single narrative, only whatever is going on in the moment, often of little consequence, but always something that can be blogged, tweeted or filmed and turned into content.
In a study he did while at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard in the spring, Peter Hamby, a political reporter at CNN, writes about the extent to which reporters in the bubble — on the bus, on the plane, at the rope line — have become “one giant, tweeting blob.”
Hamby is not some old geezer pining for the good old days. At 32, he is deeply immersed in the digital frontier of modern journalism — with a somewhat provocative presence on Twitter — and would never argue for going back to the good old days, which he and others say weren’t all that good anyway.
But there are implications to the new world, some of which go beyond the hermetic confines of the campaign media bubble. Because of the relentlessness of the schedule, the limited access and the multiplatform demands, many of the boys and girls on the bus are in fact boys and girls. And the bus they ride is Twitter.
According to Hamby, Mitt Romney’s campaign never came to terms with the new dynamic. Instead, his organization responded with a defensive crouch that fenced off the candidate from the very people he needed to reach.
“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, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them,” he writes in the report. (And sometimes the threat doesn’t come from the credentialed press — the “47 percent” video that nearly tipped over the Romney campaign was shot by someone who was on the catering staff at a fundraiser.)
Zeke Miller, the very talented reporter for BuzzFeed (now of Time) was 2 years old when Bill Clinton was first elected president, and 22 when he was tasked with covering Romney.
“I never thought that age and talent were mutually exclusive, and Zeke did a great job,” Hamby said in a phone call from South Carolina where he was doing some reporting for the 2016 presidential campaign (speaking of things that are out of control) as the governors and potential candidates Scott Walker, Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal wheeled through. “But campaign reporters are incentivized for speed and feeding the beast,” he said.
The reporters and editors Hamby spoke to for his 95-page report said the Romney campaign’s decision to fence off its candidate and to staff its press effort with equally young people was a grievous tactical error. Because the staff on the bus or plane would not really confirm or deny anything, that left many idle hands that created much mischief. In an attempt to exercise total control over the message, the campaign lost all control in bits and pieces, so when things went wrong, as they did during Romney’s European visit, they went very, very wrong.
In his report, Hamby wrote that the growing role of embeds, or television reporters attached to the campaign, had infuriated the Romney staff. Previously restricted to support roles for broadcast and cable news networks, the young journalists were suddenly weaponized by Twitter, their own blogs and video posts. In his report, Hamby calls the embeds “anthropomorphic satellite trucks.”
“If I had to pick three words to characterize the embeds, it would be young, inexperienced and angry,” an unnamed Romney adviser told Hamby.
Maggie Haberman, senior political reporter for Politico, told me, echoing remarks she had made to Hamby, that “the Romney campaign had a natural mistrust of the press, in part because he had seen his father savaged in the press decades ago.” She continued, “Beyond the mistrust, there was an outright hostility. They simply did not deal with reporters, and sometimes it was nasty, and I think they paid a price.”
And they often did so at a very high velocity. The death of the hallowed political reporter Jack Germond a few weeks ago served as a vivid reminder that the hallowed day story — a totemic representation of How It Was — has given way to a mosaic of posts on Twitter and blogs that form a running, constantly updated feed.
According to the report, the Obama campaign did a much better job of adapting to those realities than the Republican opponent. Rather than just waiting to see what bad tidings Twitter might bring, the campaign was often in the thick of things.
“A negative story or provocative Web video could fly from the desk of an Obama staffer to BuzzFeed and onto Twitter in a matter of minutes, generating precious clicks and shares along the way,” Hamby wrote in the report.
David Axelrod spent a fair amount of time as a senior adviser to the Obama campaign watching things blow up on Twitter and pushing back and promoting agendas there as well.
“You fight in the arena you find yourself in,” he said, speaking by phone. “I think we did well, but that back-and-forth contributes to the sense that every day is Election Day, and what is lost is a sense of what is actually transcendent and will end up mattering.”
Tim Miller is a former national spokesman for Jon Huntsman and now heads a PAC in Washington. For all its excesses, he will take the current coverage over what it replaced any day. He recalls that he was a political fanatic in college and had to scramble to find campaign news. Now it finds him, everywhere.
“Now people can find information in a ton of places. They can find long-form, both liberal and conservative, everywhere, keep up with the campaigns as closely as they want to on Twitter. Sure, some of it is banal, but voters have more access to more information in more places,” he said. “Nothing wrong with that.”
What does this all mean for the next election? Liz Sidoti, national politics editor for The Associated Press, loves social media’s ability to reach and involve audiences, but she is less fond of what it is doing to the political press corps that is feeding the beast.
“I worry that reporters are so busy looking after the bells and whistles that they need to on social media that they are not working as finders of fact, asking the tough questions and doing the analysis,” she told me.
Hamby suggested that politicians who came of age in the Twitter era — Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Martin O’Malley, Sen. Marco Rubio and others — will have an advantage over Hillary Rodham Clinton, who relies on a command-and-control approach in which information is carefully doled out and any journalistic offenders are disciplined.
“I wonder if the machinery of Clinton-world, the layers of staff and ’90s-era wise men, are prepared to deal with the next generation of Instagramming journalist, social media natives who fetishize authenticity,” he said.