Media/Political Establishment: More Conservatives Not Needed in Reporting

Media/Political Establishment: More Conservatives Not Needed in Reporting

Journalists and professional political tacticians in Washington’s permanent political class ecosystem apparently do not believe the mainstream media would be better served if they had more reporters who were familiar with conservative politics and voters. 

After the 2012 presidential election, CNN reporter Peter Hamby interviewed over 70 “journalists and political tacticians” that make up a “who’s who” of the Washington permanent political class for ideas on new election beats and how presidential elections may better be covered. He published his findings in a paper for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, titled, “Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus? Searching for a better way to cover a campaign.” 

The paper, by primarily examining Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential campaign and the media coverage of it, extensively examines and lays out the new terrain on which modern political battles are contested. It looks at how the the “digital firehouse of information,” especially Twitter, “is being channeled by a new generation of campaign journalists, and how political decision makers are adjusting their tactics, because there is no turning back.”

On Monday, Politico’s Playbook picked out some of the reporters and tacticians quoted in Hamby’s paper and listed them in its morning e-mail, which has been likened to a camp newsletter: 

David Axelrod, Stuart Stevens, Matt Rhoades, Eric Fehrnstrom, Adam Nagourney, John Harris, Dick Stevenson, Marcus Brauchli, Dan Balz, Jeff Zeleny, Jonathan Martin, Mo Elleithee, Phil Rucker, Garrett Haake, Tommy Vietor, Ben LaBolt, Lis Smith, Stephanie Cutter, Chuck Todd, Karen Hughes, Joe Klein, David Carr, Jon Ward, Tim Miller, Scott Conroy, Maggie Haberman, Reid Epstein, Nancy Gibbs, Sasha Issenberg, John Dickerson, Jim Acosta, John Berman, Rachel Streitfeld, Mike Murphy, Kevin Madden, Rick Gorka, Peter Alexander, Sarah Boxer, Will Ritter, Maeve Reston, Michael Feldman, Tim Pearson, Rob Lockwood, Ashley Parker, Kasie Hunt, Ryan Williams, Paul West, Michael Calderone, Zeke Miller, Ben Smith, Dave Weigel, Matt Viser, Chris Rowland, Liz Sidoti, Sam Youngman, Shushannah Walshe, Jeff Smith, Carl Cameron, Jake Suski, Robert Costa, Jackie Kucinich, Sara Murray, Jim Heath

As Hamby reported in his groundbreaking examination of Twitter’s importance in campaigns, Romney and Obama campaign officials during the 2012 race were in amazement that younger mainstream media reporters who were fluent in the medium were hardly so in politics. Obama and Romney officials told Hamby they were incredulous that reporters on the campaign could not recognize Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson. 

Many of those Hamby interviewed for his research (listed above) would surely be familiar with Reed and Robertson, for they too are institutional figures. But they may be less familiar with shows conservatives watch like Duck Dynasty; churches they attend; politicians that influence them like Sarah Palin; the guns they like to shoot and need for self-protection; the books (Liberty and Tyranny, The Liberty Amendments) and websites they like to read; and the talk radio hosts (Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin) to whom they listen.

Hamby’s reporting about Reed and Robertson also underscores a broader problem with the mainstream media and those allowed into their ranks. Though the mainstream media often bemoan the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in America’s institutions–even though studies have shown they are guilty of the same–not much is said about the lack the ideological diversity in mainstream media organizations. Such diversity is needed to more critically report on politics and challenge and correct insular assumptions and stereotypes about conservatives. 

While those reporters in question may not have known who Reed and Robertson were, it is safe to assume that there is a greater chance they would have known Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and Jesse Jackson.

In February of 2013, Gallup found that conservatives make up a plurality of the country. Other surveys by Gallup and Pew in recent years have found the Republican party has gotten more conservative and Republicans want it to be even more so, something the mainstream press should consider as they attempt to fairly cover the 2016 GOP presidential primary. In the 2016 primary, Republicans may be pulled to the right as Democrats were pulled to the left during a 2008 primary in which the liberal base was as antagonistically opposed to President George W. Bush and his war in Iraq as conservatives are to Obama and his policies. 

Some of the suggestions for better campaign coverage that were offered to Hamby are worth noting for serious consideration:

  • “voter contact”–studying how campaigns actually reach out to voters and the emerging science behind it.
  • “media tactics”– “As campaigns increasingly seek ways to make end-runs around the Washington media filter, reporters should track their activities in niche media platforms, on radio, on the web or in social networks,” Hamby writes. “Where, how and why? Is a campaign pushing their message in a popular video game, on Pandora radio, on the Big Ten Network? In the pages of Us Weekly or the Spanish-speaking press? What local TV stations are top targets for campaign advertising?”
  • “Downballot races”: Hamby suggests finding “a few contests in swing-y House or Senate districts on the state level– races that are barely covered anymore, even by local media, despite the colorful characters involved–and check in every few weeks.”
  • “Political science”: Hamby writes that reporters should pay attention to the academics that “are publishing smart, counterintuitive work or documenting trends that often go unnoticed in the press” instead of political scientists who seek to get quoted in every publication and mistake quantity for quality. 

Others solutions included: “The money trail and the political industry,” which would study where the massive amount of money that is raised is actually spent and some of the shadier ways political influence is purchased; a focus on better reporting and interpreting polling; and a focus on “Political movements, new and old.” Hamby also suggested sending reporters to cover states–instead of specific candidates–to play “zone defense” like CNN did in 2008 in states like South Carolina, or hiring local reporters or bloggers in key primary states who know the terrain well.

Perhaps Hamby, who gained respect for being one of the few mainstream reporters who has covered Sarah Palin fairly, had a blind spot to some suggestions that were not being offered or assumed his fellow denizens in Washington’s political ecosystem understand and give conservatives a fair shake. 

Consider what former Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli told Hamby, though. Brauchli said that he did not think “the media did a terrific job of explaining Obama and his presidency”–and perhaps that was so because the same reporters that have difficulties understanding conservatives also are unable to critically report on Obama. 

Ultimately, the suggestions Hamby puts forth for better campaign coverage may not be worth that much in the long run without reporters, producers, and editors who have the knowledge and life experiences to cover an electorate that greatly influences one party’s primary and makes up a plurality of the nation. The closest anyone came to touching upon this in the study was Sasha Issenberg of Slate, who observed that the New York Times did not have a gun-culture beat reporter. 

At the very least, reporters should have a genuine curiosity that enables them to learn and challenge their assumptions about an electorate and parts of the country with which they may not be familiar–that is a trait the late David Broder, who is mentioned with reverence in Hamby’s report, had in spades.