Traditional political journalists were the last people to notice in 2016 that the world had changed. Candidate Donald Trump took advantage of a stubborn refusal to recognize the power of right-wing ideology and celebrity politics and politically motivated hacking. His campaign made a mockery of political reporters who thought they were — in the old sports metaphor — the referees, blowing their whistles ineffectually as he marched past.
As the institutions of journalism gear up for another presidential campaign, we face an audience that isn’t just bored by tactical, amoral, insidery, and mostly male-dominated political reporting: Americans of all political stripes now actually hate it, and the sports metaphors that used to be a great way to go viral are now the quickest path to a Twitter ratio. The game changer, the horse race, the Hail Mary — apt, perhaps, for the party politics of the 1990s and 2000s — are painfully inadequate for the movement politics of a new era, with higher stakes, higher passions, and far wider interest.
I know of what I speak, because I helped shape the tradition I’m now attacking: I came up in New York’s nascent political blogosphere in the early 2000s, then got a job as part of the launch of Politico, conceived unapologetically as a “needle in the vein of political junkies.” I broke news every day, for years, on obscure staffers and tactics, and shared my readers’ obsession with the horse race. To my mild discomfort, my colleague Jonathan Martin’s and my blogs were actually illustrated with on-the-nose pen-and-ink caricatures of ourselves sitting on a wooden fence watching a literal horse race.
At Politico, I broke the news (off a tip from the Obama campaign) that John Edwards had spent $400 on a haircut, and a Google search reveals that I once, God help me, wrote the headline “Dodd Sees an Opening.”
I also engaged in endless arguments with press critics like Jay Rosen — he once called me “the most annoying reporter on the campaign beat” — about this kind of journalism. My defense was a good one, I still think: I was reporting true facts about things that happened, for an audience who cared.
That tradition had deep and American roots: In the ruthless scoop-mongering of Jack Anderson; in the trade coverage of the growing industry of politics; in the rich narrative tradition of politics-as-psychodrama, perfected by Richard Ben Cramer. At its best it was genuinely revelatory, as my old boss John Harris argues, the intense crucible of a political campaign revealing who the candidates really are.
That journalism was also constructed for an era during which, as Charles Krauthammer used to say, American politics and governance were played between the 40-yard lines of bipartisan consensus on free markets, light regulation, a relatively open immigration policy whose cruelties went largely undiscussed, and hawkish foreign policy. In that context, it was perhaps not totally unreasonable to see players in blue and red shirts — particularly for the relatively small audience who consumed the papers, and then blogs, of the era.
The stakes were, of course, to be far higher for millions of Iraqis in particular — in a war that had the support of both Bush and Clinton. They were far higher for many Americans, too, particularly the victims of a consensus on race and policing that now looks like a fantasy. Those Americans and non-Americans now participate in, and often drive, the political conversation. And now, the stakes of politics are also terrifying for the people who used to see it as a game.
So the focus of the American story in 2018 is not political tactics and personalities. New outlets, including BuzzFeed News, have been moving away from the conventions of 2000s insider reporting for years. Now that kind of coverage finds itself without defenders — even as much of the print and television media continues to produce reams of it. Mark Halperin, who helped create the cult of the inside with a newsletter called The Note and perfected it with the Game Change franchise, was forced out of the business over allegations that he had used his power to sexually harass and assault women that track, in an indirect way, with criticism of his journalism.
He depicted politics as “the kind that masked aristocrats played to entertain themselves at 19th-century parties: Everyone was both pawn and player, engaged in a set of arcane maneuvers to win an empty jackpot that ultimately meant nothing of true importance,” Eve Fairbanks wrote for us recently.
Chris Cillizza, Halperin’s nontoxic counterpart from the aughts, is at pains these days to point out that he no longer actually produces the goofy, it’s-all-a-game coverage that still gets him mocked. Scooplets about fundraising numbers and internal polls have receded into minor tweets.
“Nobody cares about that stuff anymore — but they never should have,” says Chuck Todd, who edited the old insider tip-sheet (and fax!) The Hotline before going on to host Meet the Press.
Indeed, those qualms about the old style are now nearly universal among reporters of my generation.
“I think (and I was complicit in this, too) our focus on gathering incremental information, on advancing stories by inches, on beating the competition by seconds, seemed less offensive when politics seemed somewhat more trivial,” said Marc Ambinder, who was, in the 2008 campaign, my main rival for minor political scoops (and Politico’s first choice for what became my job), and is no longer covering politics. “At times, we (some of us) didn’t take it seriously enough to recognize that we had become captive to our hosts. This is the same type of journalism that turned every voter into an insider; we framed our questions not to try and consider what they were hearing and feeling and wanted from the candidates, but instead how they assessed a candidate’s performance.”
This leaves open the question of what comes next. Some of the answers are clear: Powerful coverage of movement politics allows your audience to taste the appeal of the Kool-Aid, even if the reporter isn’t drinking it. Policy differences are deep and real, and reporters’ jobs are to cast them into relief, even as politicians try to blur them. The huge battles for power inside each party have massive stakes. And the consequences of Trump’s rhetoric and his policy choices loom over everything.
Meanwhile, a new generation of movement outlets on the left, from the Intercept to the Young Turks to Jacobin, are consuming space that used to be occupied by traditionally neutral outlets. Movement outlets on the right have been peeling conservatives away for years.
The insider style doesn’t just have inertia on its side, though. There’s also a practical, commercial hunger on television for some kind of voice in the vanished center, a place that tactical journalism can fill. That may be why Cillizza is the most-read writer on CNN’s website and a constant presence on its air, a kind of token for neutrality — even if he has discovered a willingness to call Trump a liar.
But it’s easier — and not just in journalism — to see what has collapsed than what’s next. The one thing that’s clear is that the new political journalism has to be built for a moment of crisis, not stability, something that citizens of less happy democracies are more accustomed to.
A Brazilian editor once told me that you could tell his country was in political crisis because everyone was talking about politics all the time. In a normal country, nobody cares about politics. And I think that most of all, the political journalism of that crisis is no longer a special genre of journalism, but instead the core of the profession: getting to the truth, explaining the world, and often telling stories with a clear right and wrong.
And yet, perhaps there’s reason to be nostalgic for that amoral, tactical coverage of American politics. When I spoke the other day to one of the key figures of the old school, who declined to be quoted by name, he sounded a little wistful:
“You almost long for the days when it was a game.” ●