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How the Political Media’s Twitter Obsession Trivializes the News | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

How the Political Media’s Twitter Obsession Trivializes the News


Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

My new Think Again column is called “Labor for a Day, Capital for the Rest of the Year” and is about the lack of MSM coverage of labor issues.

My Nation column is called “Bill de Blasio and the Rebirth of Economic Liberalism” and it’s about the New York mayor’s race (obviously).

Two quick things:
First this (lifted entirely from Thursday’s NYT City Room blog, which is quite well-written, by the way):

Updated 6:35 a.m. | Surveys are a dime a dozen – except, perhaps, for this one.

new study of more than 18,000 people in 24 countries by the British market-research giant Ipsos Mori found New York the most popular city on the planet. And yes, better than London and Paris.

The Internet survey ranked New York the most popular city to do business in, second in where they “most like to visit” (behind Paris) and the fifth most desired place to live (Zurich was No. 1).

The survey revealed some interesting global preferences. Belgians would much rather visit New York City than live here, while Poles said the opposite (they’d like to see Mumbai and Madrid).

The pollsters tried to spin the results for their hometown. “The citizens of the world have spoken and given a massive vote of confidence in London and the U.K.,” Ipsos Mori’s boss told The Telegraph.

But even Britons put London second.

Americans, on the other hand, placed New York at No. 1.

And this:
Call for Papers: The Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies (BOSS) is a new open-access academic journal that publishes peer-reviewed essays pertaining to Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s immense body of work and remarkable musical career has inspired a recent outpouring of scholarly analysis. BOSS will create a scholarly space for Springsteen Studies in the contemporary academy. We seek to publish articles that examine the political, economic, and socio-cultural factors that have influenced Springsteen's music and shaped its reception. The editors of BOSS welcome broad interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches to Springsteen’s songwriting, performance, and fan community, as well as studies that conform to specific disciplinary perspectives.

Please submit articles between 15 and 25 pages that conform to The Chicago Manual of Style to Springsteenstudies@gmail.com by January 1st, 2014. Authors will be notified of acceptance by March and the first issue of BOSS will be published in June, 2014, which marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Born in the U.S.A.

Contact: Please address all inquiries to Jonathan D. Cohen (Managing Editor) at Springsteenstudies@gmail.com

Now here's Reed:

Tweet Nothings: How the Political Media’s Twitter Obsession Trivializes the News
by Reed Richardson

There is an intellectual dilemma that faces every reporter who spends significant time on any beat—how to be in it, but not of it. In other words, there’s a fine line between cultivating sources and being co-opted by them. Complaints that our nation’s political media routinely fails to maintain this professional detachment are, by now, cliché, but it doesn’t make the problem any less real. Journalists, after all, are human, so when they start to share an existence with their subjects for too long, their viewpoints—no matter how much they may protest to the contrary—will inevitably be altered. And if slowly falling victim to an insular Beltway mentality is the perennial monkey on Washington press corps’ back, being absorbed into a hermetically-sealed presidential campaign every four years is akin to the media carrying an 800-pound gorilla.

What's more, it’s really not worth the effort, concludes CNN political reporter and 2013 Harvard Shorenstein Center Fellow Peter Hamby in his insightful meta-analysis of the 2012 campaign coverage: “Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus?” Hamby’s essay, which runs to 95 pages and involved interviewing more than 70 campaign reporters and political advisers, explores numerous elements of last year's election coverage. However, his focus is aimed at the awkward love-hate relationship that developed between the Romney campaign and the press, more specifically the young, off-air producers—known colloquially as “embeds”—that the TV networks assigned to relentlessly track his campaign.

It’s fitting that “embeds,” which first described the reporters attached to military units in the first Gulf War, became the term of choice here as well. For, the same potential for conflicts of interest and susceptibility to bias that confronts war reporters are evident in the press corps profiled by Hamby's essay. In it, we see Romney campaign reporters drawing overly broad conclusions from anecdotal events (misinterpreting his big crowds before Election Day as foreshadowing his victory), becoming emotionally attached to the candidate (a few admit to crying on Election Night), and lashing out in fits of pique when not given access to him (which was nearly all of the time).

As 2008 Stanford study on the impact of embedding media with the military found, the tight quarters they shared had a profound impact on the coverage too:

“The effect of embedded reporting on the American public is a distraction from and desensitization to war, as well as a perpetuation of American overconfidence in military ability. Moreover, as the sexual tension inherent in the word “embed” implies, the intimate nature of the media-military relationship is fundamentally incestuous, insofar as it is an illicit transgression of the principle of freedom of the press.”

A similar version of this phenomenon occurred among Romney campaign reporters, Hamby explains. Over time, their coverage became increasingly compromised by the campaign's logistical constraints and broadly desensitized to the impact of the election on real people. Part of this myopia was to be expected, since on the campaign trail, as in war, most of time nothing newsworthy is happening. But because embedding is an expensive, resource-intensive undertaking, a perverse transactional mindset took over in many newsrooms. We’re spending all this money covering the candidates, we have to get something—anything—for it. The need to feed an insatiable, non-stop newshole soon began to drive the coverage of Romney’s campaign rather than the other way around.

Invariably, the campaign embeds turned to Twitter to satisfy this constant drip-drip-drip of content. I say content because as Hamby and others in his essay make clear, almost everything gleaned from being inside the campaign press bubble didn’t rise to the level of real news. Still Hamby is careful to point out the salutary, democratizing impact the Internet and social media have had on journalism in general. And there’s little doubt the pre-blogging and social media days of yore were no golden age of journalism. For example, in one passage discussing the 2000 presidential campaign, Hamby’s recollection of the press’s relationship with George W. Bush is even more breathtakingly outrageous for its matter-of-fact tone: “If the Bush team had a story to push, or a leak they wanted to get out,” he writes, “it was as easy as summoning a hand-picked reporter like Ron Fournier of the AP or Frank Bruni of the [New York] Times up to the front of the plane.” When anyone starts using “easy” and “hand-picked” to describe, respectively, a news reporter's coverage of a political candidate, it’s safe to say the public’s needs aren’t coming first.

But for all the Internet’s inherent advantages for more, better reporting, Hamby concedes a breathless, 24/7 contest for breaking irrelevant pseudo-scoops and collecting worthless campaign ephemera played out online in 2012. And perhaps no embedded media organization excelled at this more than BuzzFeed, Hamby says:

“[BuzzFeed political reporter Ben] Smithj loved the run-and-gun pace. ‘Scoops are the just the coin of the realm in that world,’ he said of political reporting in the Twitter age.'

“It’s not that Twitter is where you’re discussing the news. So much of it is actually happening on Twitter. It was just the central stream of the conversation for everyone.”

This is a gross exaggeration, of course. As Hamby points out, a Pew study found only a “narrow sliver” of Americans—just 13%—were on Twitter last fall and a mere 3% “regularly or sometimes tweet or re-tweet news.” What’s more, Pew found reactions on Twitter were regularly at odds with public opinion. So when BuzzFeed’s Smith says "everyone" is engaged in the same—often snarky, far more negative—conversation, he’s perpetuating a frighteningly narrow, distorted view of the world. And if one’s individual coverage uses this assumption as its starting point, it can’t ever achieve escape velocity from the gravitational pull of what “everyone” else they know is tweeting too. Before long, the overall tone spirals inward into a single point of narrative convergence.

Nothing exemplifies this groupthink better than Romney’s mid-summer trip overseas, where a frustrated media horde latched onto the storyline of the candidate’s “gaffes” and wouldn’t let go. Hamby notes the Romney camp quickly grew exhausted with what it saw as a minutiae-obsessed press corps uninterested in reporting on foreign policy. To be fair, reporters along for the ride pointed out Romney’s disingenuous, semi-comical insistence on not talking about foreign policy during a trip to foreign countries. Put them together, and you have the perfect environment for dimly-lit journalism that doesn’t do much of anything to enlighten curious American voters. (And as the polls from last summer clearly demonstrate, any notion this “gaffe” coverage wounded Romney during that period is likewise a myth.)

This herd mentality cuts both ways, however. Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom frankly acknowledges that Twitter “made it easier to spin.” No need to bother with calling anyone up to the front of the campaing plane anymore, not when they’ll probably retweet your oppo leak or post-debate talking points without even having to be asked. As a result, the respective campaigns’ quickly adopted the press’s fascination with Twitter to the point where controlling the message there outweighed all other platforms, Hamby notes:

“Throughout the campaign, reporters on and off the bus began to notice something startling: Campaign operatives seemed to care more about their tweets than the stories they were actually writing or linking to.”

Meta-complaints about the meta-coverage might seem ridiculous, except it seemed to have worked to the candidates’ advantage. Last August, a Pew study found the Obama and Romney campaigns were nearly two times more effective at setting the media narrative than the media itself. While it’s tempting to gloat over the press’s self-marginalization and say, “I told you so,” there’s little to cheer about our media abdicating its democratic responsibilities of informing the people and holding accountable public officials.

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Hamby doesn’t just diagnose the many problems associated with embedded campaign coverage, however. Refreshingly, he also presents some trenchant, if not groundbreaking solutions, like more comprehensive training of embeds prior to deployment and their frequent rotation off of the trail to keep them from burning out. (Also, his suggestion that video, driven by innovations like Google Glass, will overtake tweets as the primary currency of the 2016 election seems especially spot on.) In addition, he makes a valiant—though likely hopeless—argument that any candidate who embraces a fully transparent, open-source campaign for 2016 would do a great service to both the public and him/herself. But his most worthwhile advice involves plotting out creative news coverage alternatives that forego the campaign bubble altogether and instead seek out new angles and fresh sources to find the truth. 

This is a powerful lesson for the press that is of particular import at this moment. Earlier this week, New York magazine published a detailed breakdown of who members of Congress follow on Twitter. That it discovered Republicans tend to follow like-minded Congressional colleagues and Democrats do likewise isn’t very newsworthy (and members of Congress have many more levers for influencing each other than Twitter anyway). But what was striking was the bipartisan popularity of a small cluster of uber-insider media properties among MOCs. That sites like The Hill, Politico Playbook, and The Washington Post’s “The Fix” blog topped the list is simply more evidence that an embed-like emphasis on driving the conversation and arcane palace intrigue increasingly dominates the Beltway discourse, even outside of election years. But momentous national decisions should never be reduced down to a series of pithy, 140-character in-jokes. Last year, we deserved more from the media than an obsession with which presidential candidate got more favorites. And right now, we shouldn’t be satisfied with any debate that lets us merely re-tweet our way to war.

Michael Green, Las Vegas, NV
So much to discuss here:

1. The media's inattention or limited attention to climate change brings to mind Ben Bradlee's comment years ago that it's easier to hire a scientist and teach him or her to write than it is to train someone in the media to know something about science. But give the mainstream folks credit: they still want, in the immortal words of Allen Drury, to stand tall in Georgetown.

2. Dr. A's references to John Updike remind me that one of the first stories of his that I read was "A Sense of Shelter," and it's fascinating on many levels. But I also suspect that for many of us, the best writing Updike ever did will remain "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."

3.  Not to criticize Reed, who did a masterful job, but if we follow the links to the Dempsey articles, they go to The New York Times, McClatchy, Yahoo News, and Politico, which Charlie Pierce perfectly nicknamed Tiger Beat on the Potomac. That doesn't exactly make the stories about Dempsey unnoticed or outside the mainstream. But at times like these I always invoke Frederic Birchall, acting managing editor of The New York Times in the 1920s and early 1930s, who once told an editorial writer that if he controlled the headlines and the front page, he didn't care who controlled the editorials.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

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