Walter Mears won a Pulitzer Prize for his campaign reporting during his 40 years with the AP. Mears, now retired and living in Chapel Hill, offers these words of wisdom as our members cover this year’s election.
By Walter Mears
From the time of the typewriter to the instant information era of Twitter, Facebook and blogs, political campaign reporting has been transformed, with new tools and technology driving a drastically different style of coverage that too often detours from the mission of telling people what they really need to know about candidates.
The goal, now as when I began in 1960, should be to tell the voters as honestly and fairly as possible what they can expect in exchange for the ballots they are being asked to deliver. The changes over my 52 years, first as a reporter, now as a retired observer, have created a news world my early role models would not recognize as the same line of work.
In my 11 presidential campaigns, the centerpiece coverage was delivered by seasoned reporters who learned the issues, knew the candidates up close, traveled with them and wrote about what they were telling the voters, often with instant fact checks on misstatements, contradictions or attempts to vary the message included in the day’s story.
Save for a handful of veterans with major news organizations, that is not the way it works now.
Some outfits, especially the television networks, assign newcomers to travel with the campaigns and do, literally, the heavy work, sometimes toting hefty backpacks of equipment for video and sound recording of speeches and rallies, transcribing it all, and using their computers to send it all back to headquarters. Many of them are good reporters, but the assignment doesn’t give them time for coverage in depth. A 140-character Tweet is not a vehicle for reporting on policy issues.
They are called embeds, a word adopted during the Iraq war coverage in 2003, when correspondents were attached – embedded – to military units to cover the fighting. Increasingly more traditional reporters are delivering Tweets, Facebook posts and blogs before they write their stories. Compressed mini-headlines, the shorthand of the Internet, can’t tell anyone much about policy or issues. So they report on glitches, errors, polls and horse-race accounts. Shared on the Internet, they can drive news coverage in those directions and away from the substance of what the candidates are proposing.
Not to suggest that the old ways were not flawed, too. There were mistakes, bad reporters and missed stories, which are unlikely now that everything shows up somewhere in the endless flow of news, or what passes for news. Bill Kovach, the veteran journalist and educator on the news, is concerned about information fatigue, an endless flood that leads people to tune out the valuable along with the trivial.
Add to that mix the growing invasion of hardline partisanship into the news world. While conservatives gripe about an alleged liberal bias in the coverage, the skilled and driven partisans of the right are far more effective than anyone to their left in driving the system their way.
A mid-campaign example: Matt Drudge, the conservative blogger, announced that he would be posting a bombshell video of President Barack Obama at 9 o’clock that night. It turned out to be videotape of a speech Obama had made in 2007 criticizing the treatment of blacks in the recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina.
It had been thoroughly reported at the time in print and on television networks, including Fox. Now, commentators on the same network claimed it was an “exclusive,” and raised the issue of Obama racism. Presto: An invented news story, which led other news organizations to report on the “controversy.”
There’s no reason for Drudge, Fox or any other outlet not to revive and repeat an old story. But if they had done so honestly, they could not have created “news.”
There’s another way partisans on both sides use the Internet echo chamber to influence coverage. It happens when a candidate or campaign makes a claim, sometimes true, often bent away from the facts. The partisans repeat it again and again. The bloggers make it part of their fare. Recited over and over, it too often becomes part of the coverage. Eventually, it is likely to be injected into the bloodstream of news, a “fact” only because it has been restated so often.
“Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams said before he became the second president. Hopefully they are stubborn enough to withstand the siege. In that cause, the rise of fact checking as a political reporting specialty should help. It dates from 2003, and there are now a half-dozen websites devoted to the work, along with the news organizations doing it for themselves. The purpose is to check candidate statements against the record, testing them for accuracy.
Fact checking necessarily has become more than a simple true or false rating. Campaigners are far more likely to bend the truth than to lie outright. So the fact checkers have to rate statements as partially or mostly true or false, judgments that inevitably have led to partisan disputes. Neither side likes to be told that what its candidate is saying is not quite so; each side complains about fact checking it claims is biased for the other.
The torrent of opinion delivered by partisan commentators on television and the Internet tends to drown out efforts at straight, objective reporting and explanation. To the hard right or hard left, everything that does not fit their opinions must be biased. So they wind up heeding only the like-minded. That twists news beyond recognition.
Tom Rosenstiel, the 30-year newsman who now directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism, laments that the role of traditional journalism in campaign coverage is declining while reliance on partisan sources of information is increasing. “The American news media in its coverage of the candidates appears increasingly to be a conduit of partisan rhetoric and less a source than it once was of independent reporting,” he says.
No wonder, then, that the credibility of the traditional news media is at its lowest ever. According to a Gallup poll, only 40 percent of Americans trust the news media to report accurately and fairly.
In quick-hit coverage, nothing is easier to feature than public opinion polls, which have multiplied and are increasingly dominant in campaign reports. They dutifully report that polls do not forecast the outcome, but that caveat is lost in the numbers on who is up and who is down.
When the polls showed Obama leading Mitt Romney, the conservatives began ranting about an alleged conspiracy to discourage Republican voters. Never mind that some major pollsters are Republicans and some are Democrats, which would make such a plot all but impossible. When you don’t like the numbers, claim that they are somehow rigged. “They are designed to do exactly what I have warned you to be vigilant about and that is to depress you and suppress your vote,” claimed radio talker Rush Limbaugh.
A more valid complaint about the focus on polls is that it feeds the horse-race side of campaign reporting. That is a common complaint about campaign reporting. My response is that there is nothing wrong in reporting on the race, since that’s what it is, but that the competition should be a vehicle for coverage of the issues and what the candidates propose to do. Races interest readers and viewers far more than policy discussions do. I tried to combine the two.
Finally, an unfortunate byproduct of the explosion of technology: There is more distance between reporters and the political figures they are trying to cover than there was before every word was recorded and a cell phones became a video cameras. That happened when Romney said at a closed fundraiser that he need not worry about the 47 percent of voters who wouldn’t support him, and it wound up weeks later in print and on television. He’s now said he was wrong.
We used to talk with candidates, sometimes informally and off the record. We’d unwind with drinks after a long day on the road. We got to know them in a way that now is out of reach. Candidates and their advisors do not want to risk a misstep or slip of the tongue that can go viral in the new media. Better to stay on message and do it safely. Traveling reporters once got interviews – face time – with candidates. Not now. Even top advisers, the kind of people we talked with daily, stay largely out of reach.
Given all that plus the fact that the technology permits coverage from afar, many news organizations have dropped road coverage, or cut it back. Traveling with candidates costs money, a lot of money. The returns are diminishing, and the newspaper industry faces a squeeze as circulation and advertising revenues decline – overtaken by the same Internet options that reshaped campaign coverage.
I’m thankful that I did my campaign reporting when I did, in more than 40 years before retiring in 2001. I don’t know that I could operate in a news culture in which scoops are measured in seconds, and reporters have to produce Tweets, blogs and sometimes video, too. I preferred the day when the tools of the craft were a typewriter, a notebook and a pocketful of dimes for the pay phone.
My AP reputation was for getting the lead first and fast. Neither would count for much in the new environment. And if that makes me sound like an old fogey, I can only plead guilty. That status was confirmed to me the other night when I was watching “Jeopardy” and the question was: What was the profession of “The Boys on the Bus”? None of the three contestants knew they were reporters.