By embracing the cult of political celebrity, journalists have sacrificed their public mission.
With one political convention down and another to go, now is as good a time as any to make brief mention of the fact that these garish displays help explain why so many millions of Americans despise politicians and the political media. I do so cautiously and without pointing a finger at any specific organization or individual; indeed, I don't have to. We live in a world today where virtually every major media organization unabashedly markets itself by cavorting with the subjects of its political coverage. Who knew that the model of the Vanity Fair "After Party" would win out in the end?
On Thursday, Ben Smith at Buzzfeed posted a piece titled "Why News Organizations Spent Millions at the RNC." First, Smith offered details about the money some news organizations poured into the Republican National Convention. Next, he noted that "the major reason for the expense isn't newsgathering, it's marketing." Then he added, as a way of assurance I suppose, that these organizations (including his own, of course) "are among the ones finding ways to make money while doing serious journalism." And then Smith ended with this:
What those eye-popping numbers really show is something about the conventions' identity: They's (sic) a strange and at times uncomfortable collaboration between a political party and the media, with news organizations investing heavily in shaping their own identities, just as the political parties are. They are, perhaps, best seen as media conventions; and modern political campaigns are, after all, first and foremost media organizations themselves.
What Smith tepidly calls a "strange and at times uncomfortable collaboration between the political party and the media" tens of millions of people outside of journalism and politics consider a dangerous abdication of the media's traditional role as a watchdog over political functions. This is not a partisan complaint. Just you watch, the same thing is going to happen again this week, in Charlotte, where many of the same journalists who hobnobbed with the Republicans will hobnob with the Democrats. Meanwhile, if this practice is so "strange and uncomfortable" why do so many media organizations do it?
Here's more from Smith:
News organizations last week in Tampa sought to project their brands with destinations: The Huffington Post Oasis and Politico Hub, along with the CNN and Bloomberg venues. These were all impressive operations: HuffPost's was a spa; Politico's hosted a series of newsy political events; and Bloomberg's high-minded, white-carpeted, and less newsy policy talks. But the CNN Grill -- a standard convention feature -- was the most impressive of them, the sort of clubhouse for the media and political class right between the Tampa Bay Times Forum and the media center, it was a full-scale sort of political sports bar constructed for free in a parking garage, complete with wood floor, full -- and open -- bar, free food, and giant screens.
Again, I don't mean to single out these organizations. Smith did and I'm just citing his work. There are plenty of other examples. But this level of frivolity, in 2012 especially, seems uncomfortably discordant when compared to the political and economic mood of the country. People are angry about politics and politicians. They are angry about the way the media cover politics and politicians. Can you blame them, in the face of spas and sports bars, in the face of the self-promotion, for perceiving some sort of unholy alliance between reporters and the people upon which they are supposed to be reporting?
Beyond the Beltway, across the Hudson River, in places where people don't have the time or energy to parse the nuances of the relationship between media organizations and political parties, the televised blending together of journalist and politician is a suspicious thing. By hosting these parties, by marketing their product, by branding their coverage, by buying into the concept of the politician as celebrity, the "watchdogs" are essentially saying to their flock: "Look at how well connected we are with the wolves we are here to protect you against!" Does that make you feel better protected? Me neither.
And why should it? As I wrote a few days ago, the media in Tampa did a terrible job last week covering the voting rights story as it unfolded in the courts -- a story expressly and directly connected to the Republicans' embrace of voter suppression laws all around the country. Is it too cheeky to wonder whether all the time and energy journalists spent on media marketing, all the time spent "to source up" (as Smith put it), was time and energy unspent on asking Republican leaders about why they are fighting so hard, in and out of court, to make it harder for poor voters to vote?
My point here is not to judge or bash the media for its coverage last week. There are media and political commentators who have far greater standing to do so-- I'd love to hear what James Fallows thinks, for example. My point is simply to say that reporters and news executives shouldn't scratch their heads and wonder why the next time a poll comes out and declares that the public has lost respect for journalists. They should instead remember that there is a price to be paid for this marketing, this branding, this embrace of the cult of political celebrity; a price far beyond all the millions already spent.