What If Journalists Stopped Trying to Be Political Insiders?

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Jay Rosen says the press is obsessed with savvy politicking and that it tempts voters to focus on style over substance

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Jay Rosen, the astute press critic, is giving a speech today about the problematic ways the political press covers presidential campaigns. It's a subject a lot of folks have addressed over the years, so it's impressive that he's added value to the conversation. Here is one especially noteworthy passage:

When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to "win" the game. Reveal those tactics to the public because then the public can... well, this is where it gets dodgy. As my friend Todd Gitlin once wrote, news coverage that treats politics as an insiders' game invites the public to become "cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement."

Isn't that a memorable phrase?

Of course, the news consumer who revels in reading about the insider game never imagines, any more than do journalists who report on it, that they're potentially being bamboozled in the process.

They regard themselves as insiders ... which brings us to Rosen's next argument:

In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It's better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)

Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, "with it," and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are... Therefore the savvy don't say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you... What's so weird about savviness is that it tries to position us as insiders, invited to speculate along with journalists and other players on how the mass public will react to the latest maneuverings. But the public is us. We are the public. But we are also the customers for the savviness product. Don't you see how strange that is?

In case you answered no, he proceeds to explain:

Take the most generic "savviness question" there is. One journalist asks another: how will this play with the voters? Listening to that, how will this play with the voters, haven't you ever wanted to shout at your television set, "hey buddy... I'm a voter! Don't talk about me like I'm not in the room when I'm sitting right here watching you." This is what's so odd about savviness as a political style performed for the public. It tries to split the attentive public off from the rest of the electorate, and get us to join up with the insiders. Under its gaze, other people become objects of political technique.

For Rosen, the result is a press that focuses public attention on a lot of stuff that shouldn't actually matter. "In campaign coverage, nothing is more common than a good lesson in candidate strategy: how Mitt Romney plans to capture the nomination by skipping the Iowa caucuses," he argues. "That's what fascinates the pros, the insiders. But think about it for moment: should we give our votes to the candidate with the best strategy for capturing our votes?"

The incredible thing is that there are people who think so. Let's shift gears to a 2007 op-ed by Mark Halperin, an insider political journalist if ever there was one:

MORE than any other book, Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes," about the 1988 battle for the White House, influenced the way I cover campaigns. I'm not alone. The book's thesis -- that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office -- has shaped the universe of political coverage. Voters are bombarded with information about which contender has "what it takes" to be the best candidate. Who can deliver the most stirring rhetoric? Who can build the most attractive facade? Who can mount the wiliest counterattack? Whose life makes for the neatest story?

Our political and media culture reflects and drives an obsession with who is going to win, rather than who should win. For most of my time covering presidential elections, I shared the view that there was a direct correlation between the skills needed to be a great candidate and a great president. The chaotic and demanding requirements of running for president, I felt, were a perfect test for the toughest job in the world. But now I think I was wrong. The "campaigner equals leader" formula that inspired me and so many others in the news media is flawed. 

Yet it persists.


Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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