The Changing Future of Political Journalism

Political Journalism

By Gautam Hathi. 

On March 9th, ABC’s Jonathan Karl interviewed Senator Ted Cruz in a segment aired on This Week, ABC’s Sunday political talk show. Towards the end of the interview, Karl asked Cruz whether he truly believed that Obamacare could be repealed before 2017. Cruz, of course, said that could be, and went on to proclaim that Obamacare, “is the most unpopular law in the country. Millions of people have lost their jobs, have lost their healthcare, have been forced into part time work, have their premiums skyrocketing, and right now Washington isn’t listening to those people.”

From Ted Cruz, these kinds of statements are to be expected. The interesting part of the exchange, however, was Karl’s follow up question, or rather lack of follow up questions. Cruz had just made a series of claims about the healthcare law which were at least arguably untrue, and which nevertheless are probably believed by a large segment of the voting public. None of them appeared to strike Jonathan Karl as odd, however, and he declined to further engage Cruz. Rather, he simply ended the interview with, “In other words, expect a feistier Ted Cruz if Republicans win in the fall,” and then concluding the segment.

As any good journalist would, Karl did his best to remain impartial. Karl’s version of impartiality involved addressing neither the claims being made nor the facts at play. He seemed to be so buried in the politics of the conversation that he didn’t take a moment to deal with the claims being made and the facts at play. Much more important to Karl than whether or not millions of people have actually lost their jobs due to Obamacare was the question of whether Cruz could force through a repeal of the law in 2015 rather than 2017. This Week is a political show, after all, and politics is much more important to its viewers than facts.

This incident is perhaps illustrative of a larger shift in US political journalism. When Carl Bernstein gave a talk a Duke, he said that the job of a journalist is to find and report “the best obtainable version of the truth.” In political journalism these days, however, there is a growing feeling (which Bernstein articulated in his talk) that political journalists are most successful when they commentate on the horse race: who’s up, who’s down, and what that means for 2016. The truth is only relevant so far as it impacts the politics.

Politico.com is the archetypical example of this phenomenon. The site, founded in 2007 by former Washington Post reporters John Harris and Jim VandeHei, does nothing but comment on the sport of politics. It has found success giving politicians and political reporters information about what other politicians and political reporters in Washington are up to. When standard Washington bureaus are being left behind in the age of rapid updates, message discipline, and opinion journalism, more and more journalists, from Jonathan Karl to Chuck Todd to Chris Wallace, seem to be moving towards the Politico model in order to stay relevant.

The problem is that this model won’t necessarily work for everyone else and leaves a void in coverage. Political junkies are a finite and relatively small slice of the news-consuming public, so Politico and its brethren (including the Sunday talk shows) are niche products. Standard political reporting, once you get past major headline news, risks being downsized, ignored, or shunted into the opinion section (see Fox News and MSNBC). This is especially true for non-national publications, which are struggling as it is and desperately looking for stuff to cut.

But all hope is not lost. Rising from the ashes and still-glowing embers of the news industry are a host of fresh green shoots. A series of ventures from a combination of new faces and old are popping up all around the Internet. These projects diverge from the standard news templates and do not look at all like traditional political websites, which are either rabidly opinionated or focused on a small niche. Instead, they take a specific angle on political news, or sometimes on news in general. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells at New York Magazine points out, all these new projects are experiments in the search to find a replacement for the standard model of national and political reporting.

Most famous among these new projects (at least right now) is Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, which attempts to use “data journalism” in order to uncover new and interesting truths that don’t come out in the standard horse race coverage and opinionated prime time “news” shows. Silver, having worked at The New York Times, has associations with the political journalism establishment but is not a traditional political reporter, and has a clear disgust for the current state of political journalism. However, his project aims to be broader than politics, as its ESPN backing indicates, and the site has not hesitated to apply its data-driven filter to topics including March Madness and toilet seat covers. Silver sees FiveThirtyEight as an alternative approach to journalism in general, not just political journalism.

Ezra Klein’s forthcoming project, Vox, is in a similar vein, with a slightly different twist. While it is to be seen what Vox will look like, the stated aim is to educate readers about issues in the way that Klein’s Wonkblog did. Glenn Greenwald, formerly of The Guardian, is yet another rebel from the traditional reporting establishment. As with Vox, the long term goals of Greenwald’s project (called “The Intercept”) are unclear, but it looks like he will be aiming to use journalism as a shield against the power of the state, and Greenwald is currently playing off his role in the reporting of Edward Snowden’s massive NSA leaks.

That any or all of these experiments will be successful is by no means certain. Silver’s site has launched to mixed reviews. Klein is still in the development phase and Greenwald’s project, while currently online, is still being shaped. It may be that data journalism or anti-state journalism is as much of a niche product as Politico. The question really boils down to whether or not something other than headlines and opinion is really interesting to readers, and whether readers will subsidize the time and effort it takes to do high quality political reporting if that reporting is in a different, perhaps more interesting form.

The answers to this question have important implications for the state of politics in our country. Good political journalism is one of the few avenues by which people can become educated about politics while escaping the echo chambers that exist in the political establishment and that are spreading to the media. What the political landscape of tomorrow will look like depends on what the political information stream looks like today.




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