Mark Glaser is traveling this week, but we’re happy to have Jay Rosen filling in as a special guest blogger. Rosen is an associate professor at New York University’s Department of Journalism and longtime blogger at PressThink. He is the founder of the NewAssignment.Net experiment in pro-am journalism, and executive editor of Assignment Zero for that project. Glaser will return to the blog next Monday.
Her headline for it: “The Wisdom of the Crowd Hits the ’08 Campaign Trail.” My description: “Campaign reporting by a great many more people than would ever fit on the bus that the boys (and girls) of the press have famously gotten on and off every four years.”
Does the bus even make sense any more? Maybe for some it does. But it certainly isn’t the only way to cover a presidential campaign.
In my first guest spot at MediaShift (tomorrow’s will be a progress report on Assignment Zero) I want to explain what we’re going for by greatly expanding the number of people involved in campaign coverage. From our announcement:
Instead of one well-placed reporter trailing John Edwards wherever he goes (which is one way of doing it) some 40 or 50 differently-placed people tracking different parts of the Edwards campaign, all with peculiar beats and personal blogs linked together by virtue of having a common editor and a page through which the best and most original stuff filters out to the greater readership of the Web.
So that’s the basic idea, but not just for Edwards. We’re going to do 12 candidates, which means 12 information-enriched group blogs fed by 12 handmade networks of volunteer contributors. “We’ll have a Clinton blog, an Obama blog, an Edwards blog, a McCain blog, a Giuliani blog, a Romney blog, a Biden blog, a Richardson blog, a Dodd blog, a Kucinich blog, a Brownback blog, a Huckabee blog,” Arianna wrote. “The larger campaigns could have 50 to 100 or more people following them.”
Why do it that way?
The most effective talk I ever heard about reporting on a campaign for president was given by Philip Gourevitch, now the editor of Paris Review, then covering the 2004 race for the New Yorker. He said that normally his interest as a reporter was stories no one else was interested in covering. (Thus he wrote a book about the genocide in Rwanda.) The presidential campaign is the extreme opposite of that: everyone covers it. Gourevitch agreed to the assigment only when he found an approach he could live honestly within: the presidential campaign as a foreign country the writer is visiting for the first time.
Initially it was just a clever thought, but it made more sense as he observed how the campaign went. “A presidential election is a like a gigantic moving television show,” he said. It takes place inside a bubble, which is an actual security perimeter overseen by the Secret Service. If you are part of the traveling press corps, sticking with the candidate through campaign stops, then you have to be swept—screened for weapons and explosives—or you cannot get on the bus that brings you to those stops.
Go outside the bubble for a sandwich—or an interview—and you’re considered a security risk until you are screened again by hand. This tends to increase the feeling of isolation, but also the solidarity among those inside the bubble. Which has intellectual consequences. “The press moving as a pack confirms its own take on things,” Gourevitch said.
There are many names for this. Pack journalism. Conventional wisdom. The herd of independent minds. (That’s my favorite.) The script. The master narrative. It’s the story you agree to accept because it tells you and everybody else what you and everybody else are doing on that bus. If what you are doing is deeply irrational, or ineffective, all the more reason to stick with the script.
By now this pattern is so familiar and ritualized that the complaints about it are themselves familiar and ritualized— and so is the response. Instead of the horse race, journalists should cover “the issues.” Less mudslinging, more deliberation. Strip away the facade, and find out who these people (the candidates) really are.
“We do issue pieces, lots of them!” groans the self-respecting and immediately exasperated campaign reporter. He remembers every one. Readers love horse race stories, he will say. Or mudslinging works; that’s why candidates do it!
These ironies are supposed to show that high-minded complaints about campaign coverage overlook certain low facts about human nature that keep presidential politics—and reporting about it—in a weird way constant, cycle to cycle. But the very word cycle tells you what’s going on. This supposed constancy is just another apsect of the professional bubble.
Joan Didion, in a memorable piece from the trail in 1988, said she was struck most by the whole campaign’s “remoteness from the actual life of the country,” which is also true of the journalism about it: money, polls, ads, advisers, attacks….
The project that Arianna and I announced this week starts with overcoming that remoteness. For each candidate, we’ll have lots of correspondents outside the bubble tracking parts of the campaign that touch their own interests, or tap their own knowledge. Instead of hundreds of reporters on the bus, all doing the same beat, we’ll have hundreds of different beats (and melodies) coming not from the campaign trail but from different places in the United States where politics is part of life, and the presidential campaign “lands” on people every four years, as if from above.
The people on whom it falls are qualifed to write about the campaign, we feel. We don’t want them on the bus, except as visitors to a strange country they might describe with fresh eyes. Marketwatch.com’s Frank Barnako, a professional journalist, commented on our plan this week. “Despite my own, perhaps biased skepticism about amateurs; I think this is an exciting idea,” he wrote. Which is good. But I’m not sure he got it:
It will be especially interesting to see how long these volunteers will stay on duty. If you’ve ever been on a campaign trail, you know how hectic and tiring – and ultimately boring – it can be to cover one candidate. Without a bi-weekly incentive, like a paycheck, it can be doubly challenging.
There will be some who have stick-to-it-tiveness. Odds are a few of the passionate and hard working will get noticed and, what do you want to bet, get hired by, oh, say Politico.com?
To him, volunteers will try to do what the pros do, but it’s boring work and without getting paid it could be tough for them. This is not our idea at all.
It would be great for one of our contributors to ride the bus with John McCain… once. But we’d rather have a high school English teacher with some writerly flair and a fascination for McCain who sifts the news for clues to the evolution of his public character. Meanwhile, another contributor might stick with a single factor affecting McCain’s chances: what movement conservatives think, say and do. A third could observe on McCain and the environment, sticking to that beat. Another might look at McCain and his tangled relationship to veterans of the United States military. In some cases, a contributor’s expertise might “make” the beat. If you make ads for a living (and you’re eloquent) we’d welcome your take on McCain’s ad makers. If you’re a nurse and you want to write about health care, yes.
If what the beat contributors choose for themselves is ultimately tiring and boring and they get no response, they won’t do it. This is how we seek to avoid dead spots in our “strength-in-numbers” narrative. This is how we plan to escape the bubble.
If you’re interested in contributing to NewAssignment.Net’s project with the Huffington Post, please drop us a line. We’ve had over 200 inquiries so far, but we’re just getting started. Related