Tracking Generational Change in Political Reporting: Displacing News Reporting with Analysis Provides 'The Possibility of a Far Different Sort of Bias Than Coziness with a Candidate.'

By Harwood, John | Nieman Reports, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Tracking Generational Change in Political Reporting: Displacing News Reporting with Analysis Provides 'The Possibility of a Far Different Sort of Bias Than Coziness with a Candidate.'


Harwood, John, Nieman Reports


There's plenty I don't remember about my first presidential campaign. I was in the sixth grade, after all, joining my dad, Richard Harwood, a 1956 Nieman Fellow, as he covered the race for The Washington Post. The year was 1968. What I do remember, and what I've learned as I followed my father into this sometimes-exhilarating and sometimes-dispiriting business, provides a window through which to see how much has changed about political journalism. And how much hasn't.

Start with the relationship between the candidates and the reporters who cover them. It was deeper and more honest then. My dad, who barely knew Bobby Kennedy at the start of his 1968 primary campaign, had become close to him by the time Kennedy was assassinated--so close that he asked the Post to take him off the campaign because he felt he could no longer be objective. Back then, reporter and politician spent a lot of time together in unguarded settings, which were both on- and off-the-record.

In the hothouse atmosphere of today's campaign, reporters and candidates spend much less time together. And the time we do spend is mediated much more heavily by the armies of communication strategists that each campaign employs to guard against verbal missteps. Considering the ubiquity and speed of correspondents filing for the wires, the Web, and for cable TV, not to mention newspapers, campaigns have good reason to be so cautious. The result is that I don't know any of the 2004 candidates as well as my dad knew Bobby Kennedy.

Prevailing rules of journalistic ethics would say that's a good thing. In 1968, I appeared in Kennedy's TV ads after my politically active mother volunteered me to join a group of kids in a filmed roundtable discussion with Kennedy. Dad had nothing to do with this, but the ads ran in contested primaries that he was covering. If it came to light today that my daughter was appearing in ads for Howard Dean or George Bush, other reporters would cover it as a minor scandal, which is why it wouldn't happen.

Does this heightened ethical sensibility produce a truer report for readers, listeners and viewers? Maybe, but maybe not. The reports my dad filed almost invariably contained news of first impression for his editors and the vast majority of his readers. When he took me once to a dreadfully hot state fair to hear George McGovern, standing in for the fallen Kennedy, his technological equipment was limited to a portable typewriter; he could dictate, if he could find a phone, or file to the Post from a Western Union office. Those techniques of transmitting news were glacial by today's standards, but they contained a crucial element that is harder to come by today: Pacts were the news, and the news was fresh.

Stories that I file from the 2004 campaign trail usually do not contain news of first impression--for editors or for readers. This is because of changes in technology and the media business. Nearly anything important that a candidate says today is covered live by CNN or MSNBC or another cable outlet. In fact, I might well have discussed whatever I am writing about on television even before I start writing; The Wall Street Journal, like other newspapers looking to stem readership declines by building brand identity, sends people like me in front of television cameras more often than my dad could ever have imagined. Sometimes I do a half-dozen "talking-head" appearances in a day.

As a result, stories I write must command the attention of readers less by the news they contain than by the analysis they offer. That introduces the possibility of a far different sort of bias than coziness with a candidate; it is the bias of analysis in my idiosyncratic conception of what are the most relevant and important trends I see in the campaign and the country. Which reportorial bias is more pernicious? It's a tough question to answer.

While we are less familiar with candidates, we are more familiar with the legion of media consultants, pollsters and strategists who are the mercenary soldiers of the permanent campaign. …

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