Saturday, November 8, 2008

So NOW the NYT is fair to Palin

Once the election is over, the New York Times provides something in the neighborhood of factual reporting about Sarah Palin. They couldn't have allowed facts to get in the way of anonymous smears and tendentious misrepresentation so long as it was possible that The One might be hurt by the truth. Fausta Wertz has a nice roundup on today's Palin news, and says:
Part of Palin’s appeal to people like me is that she tells it like it is, unlike the current convoluted language in the media and the upcoming administration.
She links Doug Ross who says about media bias:
Put simply, there appears to be only a turnstile between a Democratic administration and a cushy media job.
For a couple of weeks, I've been trying to think of how to boil down into a single column exactly how the Republican Party has blown its media-relations operation over the past decade. What does the GOP do wrong? Well, "everything" might be a short summary.

If the media is 90% liberal (and it's close to that), this means that there are relatively few opportunities for Republicans to hire campaign operatives who have actual newsroom experience. So you've got people running press relations who don't have the faintest clue about what motivates reporters.

Out on the trail covering McCain and Palin, you could not miss the campaign staff's vibe of hostility (or perhaps a defensive fear) toward the press corps -- a hostility returned with interest by reporters who were tired of being fed press releases, shuttled around to scripted events, and denied direct access to the candidates. The campaign would set up a "pen" for the press, and any reporter who wandered outside the pen to try to get some "local color" quotes from the crowd was apt to be confronted with an officious staffer telling him to get back where he belonged. (This happened to me in Lebanon, Ohio, though I eventually managed to elude the staff and do some reporting despite them.)

Obama's campaign was run by David Axelrod, who spent 8 years as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and has a thick Rolodex of press contacts. The success of the Obama campaign had a lot to do with the amazing ability of Team Hope to get the press to frame its coverage to reflect exactly the spin the Obama campaign wanted. And a big part of that was Axelrod working the phones with reporters and editors in a collegial manner.

The poisoned relationship between the media and the Republican Party is not entirely the fault of the media. There must be some secret school somewhere that trains Republican operatives to treat reporters like crap. But it's infinitely easier for GOP officials to whine about "media bias" than to admit the fact that they don't know what the hell they're doing when it comes to press relations.

Just in case any campaign operative happens to be reading this, let me explain something to you: When a news organization spends money to send a reporter to cover your event, they're doing you a favor. It's free publicity, and you need to show some evidence that you appreciate it. Self-important staffers are apt to get confused about the nature of this nexus between themselves and reporters, and to imagine that they're the ones doing reporters a favor simply by allowing reporters to cover the campaign.

Now if I, a conservative journalist, perceived that kind of condescending attitude coming from the McCain campaign staff, don't you think the liberal reporters caught it? And don't you think it rankled?

Flacks and hacks
Since I'm on this rant, how about I give you miserable little staff punks some insight into the journalistic mind, OK? You have no idea how infinitely inferior you are to an experienced reporter, in that reporter's mind. You're just another P.R. flack, another publicist trying to promote a product, no different than the insignificant people who flood the mailboxes of every newrsoom in America with press releases. If there is one attitude more prevalent in the newsroom than liberal bias, it is a profound contempt for publicity-seekers, a category that most emphatically includes politicians.

Some of my best friends are P.R. people and over the years, I've come to appreciate what it is they do, and how they do it. I've been schmoozed by the best in the business, and recognize the symbiotic relationship between reporters and publicists. But I'm a rarity in that regard, and the reporter's natural resentment of P.R. flacks is aggravated by our knowledge that the flacks are getting paid more by their clients than we hacks in the press corps are getting paid to cover whatever it is you're trying to promote.

This flacks-and-hacks dynamic exists at every level of journalism down to the tiniest weekly paper. Reporters everywhere learn from Day One on the job to be unimpressed by politicians and other publicity-seekers, to think themselves superior to, say, a county commissioner or a city manager. This innate arrogance of the press may seem objectionable, but the only possibility for objective news is a reporter who is not overawed or intimidated by the people he's reporting about. (Something the Obamaphiliacs in the press corps ought to consider.)

Political reporters are self-consciously the elite of the journalistic profession. They have a deep disdain for the "lifestyle" feature writers, the slobs on the sports desk, etc. The guy who covers political news for a daily in Pittsburgh or St. Louis is going to see his byline on the front page almost daily. He's the Big Dog in the newsroom, the ace, and everybody knows it. And if he somehow manages to work his way up to the major leagues of journalism -- the Associated Press, the Washington Post, Reuters, U.S. News & World Report -- well, it doesn't exactly encourage humility.

The arrogance of TV reporters is far, far worse, in part because TV reporters make so much more money than print reporters, and in part because the TV guys are genuinely famous. Some guy who began his career covering brush fires in Kansas was a local TV star -- a bona fide celebrity -- from the time his first story aired in whatever piss-ant town he started in. By the time he makes it to the status of network political correspondent covering a presidential campaign, by God, he thinks he's the next Cronkite. (Except more hip and sexy.)

The campaign to nowhere
Now, try to put yourself in the shoes of these reporters, out on the road covering a presidential campaign, their news organizations being billed thousands of dollars for travel expenses, their editors expecting big scoops and hard news and -- nothing.

A hotel, a bus, an airplane, a bus, and their reward is to be herded into a pen with all the other reporters so that they can do stenography about a speech at a rally that's no different than the speech at yesterday's rally. Never a press conference, never a chance to get five minutes of one-on-one time with the candidate. And the whole time, they're being fed a bland diet of press releases, conference calls and -- if they're lucky -- some not-for-attribution bullshit from a "senior campaign official."

This was what the McCain campaign gave the press corps day after day. And except for a few weeks of doubt in September, these reporters were quite aware they were covering a losing campaign that -- by all normal logic of public relations -- should have been only too eager to curry favor with the press. But as Newsweek reported:
McCain would want to head back to the reporters' section of the plane, and Davis would pull him back. "No, no, no, I want them around me," McCain would say, referring to the reporters. "No, no, no, they're screwing you," Davis would retort. At McCain's insistence, his new campaign plane this past summer had been fitted with a large bench-style couch, to re-create the space on the Straight Talk Express bus, where the candidate had spent hours jawing on the record with reporters, half a dozen or so at a time. But reporters were never asked to sit there. McCain did not look happy about being kept on a tight leash, as least as far as reporters could tell from a distance.
Common sense, and even the slightest consideration of the reporter's point of view, tells you why any strategy of secluding candidates from the press contributes to bad coverage for Republicans. "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" -- this is good advice for dealing with hostile reporters. The guy who files an unfair, inaccurate story needs to be confronted directly by the candidate. Not with an angry rant, but with a calm, cheerful appeal to the reporter's conscience. (Yes, even reporters have consciences.) "C'mon, Jim -- gimme a break here. That was wrong, and you ought to be honest and fair."

The crutch of 'bias'
As ridiculously liberal as most reporters are, they usually pride themselves on being factual and fair. And as arrogant as they (we) are, journalists are human beings who respond better if treated like human beings than treated like cattle.

I love Rush Limbaugh, but when I hear him talking about the "drive-by media," and then see otherwise intelligent conservatives proclaim that the Old Media are irrelevant, I fear that we are surrendering to an attitude of defeatism. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that Republicans can do nothing to improve their media relations operation, and you act on that belief by treating reporters like crap, I can guarantee that GOP media relations will not improve.

At some point, whining about media bias becomes an all-purpose excuse for Republican Party failures. It's a crutch that weakens the party by allowing incompetent campaign operatives to externalize blame for their own screwups. And it violates one of Ronald Reagan's most basic principles:
I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.
Suppose that, by intelligent and patient hard work, the GOP could reduce media bias by 5 percent or 10 percent. The playing field would still be tilted against Republicans, but it would be more like walking up a steep hill, rather than trying to scale a sheer cliff.

Grassroots conservatives need to stop blaming everything on the media, and start taking a more critical look at the hired help on these campaigns, the clueless political cronies -- e.g., Tucker Bounds -- who have done so much to poison the GOP's relationship with the press corps. Being Jill Hazelbaker's ex-boyfriend is no substitute for competence.


  1. I call b*llsh*t on this:

    >>The guy who files an unfair, inaccurate story needs to be confronted directly by the candidate. Not with an angry rant, but with a calm, cheerful appeal to the reporter's conscience. (Yes, even reporters have consciences.) "C'mon, Jim -- gimme a break here. That was wrong, and you ought to be honest and fair."

    The crutch of 'bias'
    As ridiculously liberal as most reporters are, they usually pride themselves on being factual and fair.<<

    My every experience with the press tells me this is a fantasy.

  2. Any advice for a young flack looking to become an old hack (PR person trying to transition to real journalism)?

  3. I think this applies also to blogger treatment of journalists. I had a long back-and-forth with DrewM. about the possible merits and demerits of attacking Drew Griffin for blowing the Byron York quote in what was perhaps the best TV interview of Sarah Palin.

    Keep in mind that Drew Griffin earned that interview because of his excellent reporting on ACORN, and that he was one of the few CNN guys who reported local government failures during Katrina. I would give him a measure of benefit of the doubt before calling him a "hack." Otherwise, we'll have no friends in the media at all.

  4. I have had over 30 years experience with reporters, both print and broadcast. Some are very good and some are horrible. They couldn't even accurately quote me, even on tape, they would take things completely out of context. When I saw the same thing happening with those journalists that I considered accurate reporters, I asked why. To a man, and woman, they told me that their editor had "re-written" their report prior to publication. True or not, I was the one getting screwed. Now I give no interviews or share any information with the news media. Except you, of course.

  5. This commentary on how journos think is all well and good. . . provided journalism survives as a profession. Right now, I'd rather read the writing of a subject matter expert directly, than suffer through the usual, often-clueless, filter of the average "reporter."

    Old-school, pro journos like our host, RSM, will survive the current media collapse by keeping their byline alive here on the web, and through books and public speaking (media, such as magazines and whatever papers survive, will still employ some writers for quite a while, but those writers need to be the best, in order to survive a shrinking market). RSM's excellent writing, his network of contacts, and his commentary skills make him well worth reading. But the vast majority of news I gather comes from knowledgeable folks working the issues as experts, and publishing directly to the web, not from "journalists."

    Two examples: I read PowerLine blog and WattsUpWithThat blog nearly every day. That's four subject matter experts who write very well, providing knowledge with the news items they cover. You can't get much of that in a newspaper.

    I also prefer the Michael Totten/Michael Yon style of web journals over the frequently-useless crap from AP or other "news agencies."

    The byline is the brand.

    Thanks to the web, journalism has devolved from "awe-inspiring profession" to "A bunch of people writing and saying stuff." For example, many blogs have become major players, and generate a lot of "page views." They may make far less money per-view, but the scale works in their favor long-term, provided they can manage the business model. This takes marketing savvy, coupled with skill in use of web technologies, and a commitment to detail and command of the subject. Writing well is merely an entry-level requirement.

    So for any writer: if you want traffic, prove your credentials on the subject matter, and learn to write. If you are good, no one will give a damn whether you ever worked at Reuters or the Los Angeles Times. (I wouldn't be shocked if some reporters who've left the LA Times prefer no one know they were ever there.)

    The collapse of the major papers will accelerate for a while. The TV journos will become more important for a while. Thankfully, none have the foot-to-the-neck hold over their audience's need for information they used to have. For better or worse, The Media now includes any who wish to participate, and we have learned that it is we who watch the watchmen.

  6. Here's Salter's account of why McCain couldn't talk with reporters on the plane -- for reporters it was just an opportunity to sink McCain and elect Obama President. For the record, I believe Salter on this:

    "The changes to how McCain campaigned were forced by the press, Salter argued. "The fact that we didn't do the back-of-the-bus stuff is only a function that you guys really wouldn't let us," Salter said, referring to the media. "Once the cameras demanded to be there, it became, What can McCain say that we can circulate on the hour and embarrass the s___ out of him? So he just couldn't do it, and it wasn't a Bush hijacking or anything, it was recognizing reality. We were being mocked by the meta-narrative writers for being undisciplined, lacking a single central message.""