Friday, June 01, 2007

If There Used To Be A 'Below The Belt' In Political Journalism, People Must Have Worn Belts Around Their Ankles

"There used to be a line between 'reportable' and 'keep this out of the papers,' but in recent years it's gotten rubbed out."

Is it just me, or does this strike you as naive?

These are the words of Matthew Felling, extracted from the CBS News blog. According to Felling, the media covers politicians much like the way celebrities like Lindsay Lohan are covered: Ruthlessly and nasty. He writes:

"There's no easy way to say this to candidates and their campaign staffs but to say it," Felling writes. "Put down your dog-eared copies of "The Boys on the Bus" and make The Smoking Gun your homepage.

"Media Darwinism is cruel."

Now I don't know about you, but political journalism has never been touch football. Often, when interests (or facts) contradict, it turns into a full-contact sport.

In this case, Felling is looking at the 2008 race, and he sees journalists ripping the candidates up for their personal lives. But he must remember that the lives of politicians have always been at the same level of scrutiny, and that in the Information Age, the political journalist may have more to write about because we know more about the candidate. As National Journal writer Carl Cannon writes, "YouTube, the blogs, and an unfettered cable culture did not exist in 1988 and 1992, the years that the privacy barriers came tumbling down. They do now."

Are the current candidates a crazier crop than ever before? No. We just aren't in the dark about it like we used to be. So it seems to me that political journalism is doing what it always has been -- covering politicians the way Us Weekly covers Lohan.

What is true is that political journalism goes through cycles, much in line with the state of worldy affairs at that time. An old post on Jay Rosen's PressThink blog notes the change over the last decade: "[10 years ago] there was a vacuum in journalism where political argument and imagination should be. Now there are signs that this absence of thought is ending."

So from time to time, political journalists get a little self-conscious. On the whole, however, they've been doing what they've always done.

Political journalism in America has gone on since (very nearly) Day One -- and I'm fairly sure George Washington was the Barack Obama -- or the David Beckham -- of his day. That is to say that celebrity and politics go hand in hand, and it would be impossible to state that the current way politicians are reported suddenly is without restraints that used to exist.

Have we forgotten about yellow journalism? Surely, such writing was sensational and at the time, very much "below the belt." But Felling seems to argue that we no longer charge such writing or coverage as out-of-bounds.

That, I suspect, may be because the Internet has come rushing into play -- and the average citizen journalist tends to be a bit more acerbic than the MSM reporter, at least directly.

Felling does note the influence of interest groups and YouTube and blogs on the voice of a political candidate. But he uses little proof to show that things have really changed. In one example, he mentions an Albequerque reporter who asked Bill Richardson if he had "a bimbo problem." Fifty, one hundred, two hundred years ago, that same question would have been asked by a reporter. People (and thus, reporters) are just as rough and forward and without decorum as they always have been. But in this age, there's the possibility that someone was able to record it, post it up on the web, and actually prove beyond an oral retelling that it actually happened.

So in terms of cruelty, political reporting seems to have always been the same. Likewise for political reporters. The difference this time is that we got it on tape. Scandal!

In his own words, "as a nostalgic media mind, I like living in the old days as much as anyone, but they're gone like the black and white of 'Pleasantville.' " I think, in this case, Felling undermines his own argument. He himself is looking back with rose-tinted glasses -- as he puts it, "recollect[ing] and romanticiz[ing] the past."

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