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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

This is journalism?

Consider this passage from Washington Post media critic Howie Kurtz's look at a day trying to follow Hillary Clinton around on the campaign trail -- and the personal travails of ABC News correspondent Kate Snow:
Earlier this month, Snow ignored the speed limit as she chased Clinton from Manchester diner to a Concord state office where the candidate was filing to run in the primary. "I parked seven blocks away," Snow says. "I ran up the street in my high-heel boots. I got there out of breath, and the Secret Service stopped me and said, 'You can't come in.' "
Or this hard-hitting exchange involving Boston's own Joe Battenfeld:

When Clinton stepped away from the microphones, Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" began blaring from the speakers, which effectively drowned out any attempted queries from the journalists sprinkled throughout the room. Battenfeld, the Boston reporter, launched his horse-race question during a brief lull between songs.

"It's kind of an art form," he said afterward. "I would have asked her about Obama, but I figured she would have turned and run."

The technology has changed dramatically since I last covered a presidential campaign in 1988, when laptop computers gave you three line screens and cell phones were in their infancy and weighed you down (assuming your news organization would even spring for one).

But very little else has changed. Reporters continue to focus on polls and gaffes and candidates continue to avoid "stepping on their message" and answer questions about polls that can lead to gaffes.

The result of this "exercise in democracy" is on gaudy display in the White House.

After every election cycle, the sages of political journalism gather in conferences sponsored by the Pew Center for Journalism or Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and promise to do better.

And during every subsequent election some TV reporter continues to play Sam Donaldson shouting out questions and some network star worries about broken heels.

The technology has brought new toys -- the YouTube debates, for example or better yet the technology that enables me to vent my spleen as I'm doing now.

And yes, journalists can screw up using the new toys -- witness CNN, Anderson Cooper and the gay general -- as Dan Kennedy has accurately noted. (Less well chronicled is how much the same thing happened at the Democratic version -- without the heavy mouth breathing reaction from the Right.)

So what's the solution? Simple. Stop wasting time, energy and effort to chronicle every word -- and every potential gaffe -- in excruciating detail. Use this new technology for some good.

Readers of ABC's brightly written "The Note" have become familiar with attributions to obscurely named reporters. These are the young men and women who trail the candidates with the tools of the trade but who recede into the background when the "bigfoot" reporter shows up.

Why not leave the daily scripted shows to these folks and see how quickly the campaigns adapt by not having to come up with nightly images? They may even turn to substance (nah, that's too much to hope for).

And what should the "bigfoot" do? In the language of Woodstein, "follow the money." That's exactly what The Politico's Ben Smith did in coming up with one of the more substantive stories to date -- Rudy Giuliani's attempt to hide the travel costs of his trip to the Long island home of the then Judith Nathan.

Giuliani was quick to grouse the story was a "hit job" and it's entirely possible Smith did benefit from an oppo research tip. But he also did the legwork, filing Freedom of Information Act requests and examining documents -- the things reporters are supposed to.

Part of the problem, to be fair, is that campaigns are way too long and news holes are tough to fill with new material. The Globe reported on Mitt Romney's gardener eons ago. And while the public claims to want the details about a candidate and his or her positions, the substance can often be tedious -- as the Globe's endless series on Romney proved.

But there's lots more out there about the candidates and how their words don't necessarily match their deeds. All that's needed is the time to do the digging the journalism is supposed to be about.

And that requires editors with courage to use junior staff or no staff on some obvious campaign media events. I know I could have done without joining George H.W. Bush at a 1988 visit to a Greenland, N.H., truck stop where the candidate asked for a "splash" more coffee while reporters bought out the stock of "Shit Happens" hats.

And I seriously doubt any reporter would object to not having to stand knee-deep in an Iowa pig sty in December while Candidate Z prattles on about agriculture -- without having a clue about what the issue really is.

Venceremos! Free the political reporter! Free the American people!

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