Festival of Books: How the 'boys on the bus' cover campaigns
We are, it seems, living in fragmented times.
Four notable political journalists and a media critic spent an hour late Saturday afternoon dissecting the state of American politics and political journalism. The L.A. Times Festival of Books panel was called "The Boys on the Bus," but as moderator (and L.A. Times political reporter) Mark Z. Barabak pointed out, these days half of the nation's political reporting class are women, and the bus was long ago replaced by chartered airplanes.
The panel's title was drawn from Timothy Crouse's 1973 landmark book "The Boys on the Bus," which was among the first and best-known works to examine the role of the media during presidential campaigns. Crouse helped create the modern perception of political journalists as celebrities in and of themselves, a role since elevated by the talking-head shows on cable and Sunday morning network news shows.
But as anyone who has been on the bus knows, celebrity has little to do with the day-to-day coverage of campaigns (Disclosure: I covered political campaigns for the L.A. Times from 2000 to 2008, where I worked with Barabak and his fellow panelist Ronald Brownstein, and against panelist Adam Nagourney, then a political correspondent for the New York Times).
And in this era of instant news, tweets as stories, and television programming propelled by opinion, both the practice of politics and political journalism are undergoing tectonic shifts. Nation magazine media critic and journalism professor Eric Alterman condemned the predominant mode of coverage, arguing that most political journalism is about the process with a de-emphasis on what kinds of leaders the candidates would be if elected.
"If you look at the vast majority of the coverage that's produced in campaigns ... 85 to 90% of it has nothing to do with educating voters about who they might want to vote for," Alterman said, drawing applause from the nearly full Bovard Auditorium. "The way you become a star political reporter is by impressing your colleagues, and you have to tell your colleagues things they don't know.... So most of the coverage ... is stuff that's written for other reporters. It's not stuff that will help anybody understand many issues."
Nagourney, now the New York Times' Los Angeles bureau chief, agreed that campaign coverage has deteriorated in recent years, but argued that the cause isn't clubbiness among political reporters, but the changing nature of how people get their news.
"It is a culture in which you're encouraged to say stuff that is edgy or outrageous to get attention to get on television, to get speaking fees," Nagourney said. "That's unhealthy. And in this Twitter world, where things are so fast -- remember, reporters who tweet aren't getting edited. They're not thinking over what they're trying to say. And the outrageous stuff is what gets attention. So there's a lot of junk out there."
Brownstein, a former L.A. Times political columnist and current editorial director for the National Journal Group, blamed the fragmenting of the political landscape itself, and a lack of curiosity by voters about competing ideas. As the nation has calcified into a left-right divide, the journalism has morphed under the "duopoly" of cable news and Internet into a sports coverage model "in which we are commenting on each play that happens, and that's it."
To illustrate the political divide, he asked for a show of hands among the audience by people who were "deeply uncertain" about whom they would vote for in the November presidential election. No hands went up as the audience laughed.
"There is a little bit of a crisis of confidence about who exactly in this highly polarized era we are writing for," Brownstein said. "In that world, increasingly, I think, the idea that the highest purpose of journalism in a presidential year is to inform an uninformed and undecided voter is sort of being eroded ... by the sense that we are really writing for the partisans who want to know how their team is doing every day, which is a very different problem."
Alterman said that what also is lost is a sense of purpose by political journalists to keep the politicians honest. Lies and manipulations are reported as bits of strategy, rather than getting called out as lies and distortions. "I think the whole notion of [journalistic] objectivity is outdated," Alterman said. "Reporters should report what they know to be true, and give the evidence. So they should call the candidate a liar if they believe the candidate is lying."
But John Powers, who writes about politics for Vogue and is a critic at large for NPR's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross, pointed out that even writing the truth about candidates' lies would have little effect on readers uninterested in having their beliefs challenged.
"We use the term 'demonstrably false,' " Powers said. "For many people you can't demonstrate that these things are false. So the people who want to believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim, there's no evidence in the world that will convince them. People now have their own facts."
Photo: President George W. Bush on the campaign bus with journalists in 2004. Credit: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press