The Political Journalists' Canon

By Shribman, David M. | Nieman Reports, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Political Journalists' Canon


Shribman, David M., Nieman Reports


Political scientists and political journalists share one thing in common--a respect for a body of literature that can be described as a "canon." These are different canons, to be sure. The one revered by journalists is, not surprisingly, produced mainly by journalists. But an observer of American political journalism can better understand the genre if he understands what journalists know and revere. Even if all political journalists have not read all of these volumes, they have been taught, or reprimanded, or mentored by journalists who have. The ideas in these books are embedded in the consciousness of every political journalist. They are as much apart of his tools as his notebook, his computer, and, of course, his cell phone.

The first entry in this canon is Theodore H. White's "The Making of the President 1960." For political reporters, it is the equivalent of "Beowulf," the "Chancon de Roland," "The Canterbury Tales," "King Lear," and the King James Version of the Bible--combined. Much imitated and much derided, it nonetheless survives, for conventional political correspondents at least, as the founding document of their craft.... Its emphasis on the small observation, on the daily details of campaign life, continue to this day.... At the heart of this technique was the notion that great truths about a candidate could be found by examining not only how his mind worked, not only how his campaign style worked, but also how the mechanics of his campaign worked. The logic is tenuous, but the dramatic appeal is undeniable .... The effect of the White book on political correspondents cannot be overemphasized. Suddenly news stories were full of insider stuff--so much so that these details (what the candidate wore off camera, whether there was cantaloupe or honeydew on the fruit plate) became standard, almost cliches....

The bookend to the White volume might be Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail '72." The Thompson book, perhaps the high point of "gonzo journalism," portrayed the presidential election in all its insanity, in all its frenzy, in all its dehumanizing and preposterous excess. That, of course, was its appeal, even to mainstream journalists who couldn't have persuaded their editors to print even a single paragraph of reportage in the Thompson style even if they were capable of producing one. But Thompson also expresses the political reporters' frustration ... "Only a lunatic would do this kind of work: twenty-three primaries in five months; stone drunk from dawn till dusk and huge seed-blisters all over my head. Where is the meaning?"....

The place of "Fear and Loathing" in the journalists' pantheon illuminates another aspect of the political reporter's character--his knowledge that, for all the earnestness he brings to bear on his written product or his television spot, the process of electing a president is itself a portrait in absurdity .... The Thompson book also underlines another aspect of modern political correspondence, the tendency of journalists to become marinated in the meaningless blather of the conventions of politics. These conventions include rhetorical offensives known popularly as "spin:" the overly cautious language of candidates whose thoughts and words are controlled by overly cautious handlers; the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the ordinary campaign day, and the effort to make a process that has become a mass-marketing exercise look and feel like a mom-and-pop retail operation. …

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