All the news that ain't

A recovering campaign reporter witnesses the demise of journalistic objectivity, and wonders what will replace it.
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A recovering campaign reporter witnesses the demise of journalistic objectivity, and wonders what will replace it.

The campaign is over. Let the media bashing begin.

My first shot came on election eve — an e-mail from my sister, a pro-life Texas Republican, who wanted me to know that media attacks on poor Sarah Palin were "unforgivable." I suppose she wanted me to know because she knows I am a recovering political reporter.

And it's true. For some 20 years — from Jimmy Carter, through Reagan and Bush the First and most of Bill Clinton — I committed journalism in the great dismal swamps of American politics. As a Seattle Times grunt, I served at various times as chief political reporter, Washington, D.C., correspondent, or editorial columnist. I covered elections at levels ranging from the city council to Congress and president. I did hard time in Olympia motel rooms, survived three years covering Congress in D.C., and suffered through state and national party conventions. I was one of the boys on the bus.

One spring day in 1997, I kicked the habit and headed for Alaska to retrace the route of the Klondike gold rush. Since then, I've left the Times and written mostly about the culture and ecology of Puget Sound. I was a happier person for it.

Until this year, when I tumbled off the wagon, agreeing to write 2,000-word profiles of the Governor and her Republican challenger. To do this, I spent the nicest days of the summer tracking down campaign events, jotting notes from the back of the room, and interviewing state officials and party activists and consultants and pollsters. Then I spent days on end at my computer, processing words in an attempt to make sense of it all.

It was a miserable experience, which reminded me of why I bailed out in the first place. In a sense, my sister is right. Most political journalism is an intellectual wasteland. Sure, you can still get fine campaign reporting from The New York Times and a few other prestigious papers. But they are drowned out by cable TV, end-to-end 30-second spots, and by the great bulk of mainstream reporting that is, with rare exceptions, an utter waste of time — for the reader, the voter, and certainly for the journalist.

Where my sister and others go wrong is when they attribute the failure to bias, liberal or otherwise. In fact, my colleagues and I have long doled out mediocre campaign reports regardless of race, religion, or ideology.

As Jefferson observed long ago, a free and vibrant press is crucial to a free society. What we print or post is supposed to fuel the democratic process, equipping Americans with the information they need to cast an intelligent vote. I've always believed that election coverage is a journalist's highest responsibility.

It may also be what we do worst. This year we saw exhausting coverage of Sarah Palin's wardrobe, of Joe the Plumber's lack of a plumbing license, of John McCain's rantings about Barack Obama's past associations. We got the normal dosage of horserace polls and sports metaphors and Saturday Night Live skits, all amplified by the Web. And precious few attempts to figure out which of these two candidates has the ideas and leadership skills to do the job.

Most political reporters are well aware that most of what they do is meaningless. We know that voters need to know which candidates possess the ideas and leadership qualities necessary to navigate a complicated political matrix. But nobody knows how to recognize those qualities before they are exhibited. And, since nobody knows what else to do, we fall back on what we learned in college or, more likely, on the job — to cover the news. News is what we understand. When Barack Obama announces he is running for president, that is news. When John McCain picks Sarah Palin as his running mate, that is news. And the results on Election Day are certainly news. All we have to do is report what happened — with, of course, absolute neutrality and professional objectivity.

But most of what happens during campaigns is not news. It is the same thing happening today that happened yesterday. It is the same message delivered in a different place by candidates trying desperately to package themselves as news so that reporters will report it. That's fair enough. But it ain't news.

Still, reporters still have to file stories — at least once a day and, for TV reporters, several times. So they recast yesterday's story, switch metaphors, and try desperately to cast yesterday's non-news as today's.

This is compounded by the requirement that we maintain strict neutrality toward the subject — a traditional professionalism that further dilutes the prose and neuters the journalism.

That's the way it has been for decades — certainly throughout my tenure. It never worked.

Then came blogs, which are changing everything. You may have noticed that bloggers are unconstrained by any of my old rules. Screw the news. Politics is about ideas and personalities. So let it all hang out. So it is that bloggers have exploded into the Next Big Thing in political journalism, dominating the media marketplace.

We've all seen the consequences of the blogosphere. The marketplace of ideas has rapidly broken into separate camps, each with its own array of Web sites and cable TV channels. Today, every American can click instantly to an information source that fits his or her political sensibilities, further splitting the nation into blue states and red states, rural and urban and suburban sectors, none of which shows the least interest in the other's ideas.

And, while they are more free to toil in the marketplace of ideas, bloggers are no better than I was at recognizing those mysterious qualities of leadership. We all know that Barack Obama and John McCain have had vastly different experiences and political ideas. But none of us knows whether either of them will make a good president.

Meanwhile, the boys are still back on that bus — a generation of professional, mainstream political reporters who have been relegated to the sidelines, waiting for the next round of newspaper layoffs while trying to decide if they want to join the fray, move to the sports pages, or take a buyout and fade away.

I got out just in time. Political journalism, as I practiced it, is going the way of typewriters, or of full-service gas stations. It doesn't really matter if even-handed political journalism  was a worthwhile pursuit. We're history.

Part of me says good riddance. But first I'd like a clearer sense of who will be telling us what and where and why the next time around.


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Ross Anderson

Ross Anderson is a former Seattle Times reporter who now lives in Port Townsend.