The Future of Political Journalism?

Traditional Journalism is in for several more tremors before the implosion is finished. I’ve mentioned several of the trends that are accelerating the shift toward a concept I call the Embedded Journalist, but don’t expect that transition to be smooth.

In California, for example, a political campaign high on finance and low on interest is offering to provide video excerpts to television stations. Opponents are crying foul:

Republican primary rival Steve Poizner’s campaign called it another attempt by Whitman to buy the election, referring to the $49 million that she’s spent so far on the campaign — largely on paid media advertising.

“Meg Whitman crossed another line in this race by spending her millions to spread her campaign propaganda in tailored sound bites to news stations,” said Jarrod Agen, Poizner’s spokesman.

Sterling Clifford, campaign spokesman for Democratic candidate Jerry Brown, called Whitman’s move “campaign propaganda,” while Sean Clegg, campaign manager for the Level the Playing Field 2010, said the move was straight out of Wall Street.

“In the world of corporate public relations,” Clegg said, “it may work to send packaged video press releases, but there’s a far greater degree of scrutiny in the political world.”

What’s not clear is how much this is political sour grapes, and how much is recognition that politics is a different animal.

If you’re a small-market station in California, you don’t have the resources to cover an extended campaign. And I have heard from many colleagues in California that Whitman’s media spending has jump-started this campaign season, promising to make it the lengthiest ever. Fatigue will be a factor.

I have to wonder, how much complaint would there be if:

  • A campaign put its video highlights straight to the web
  • A campaign sent news releases with quotes to fax machines

Apparently, the arguments coming from the other campaigns are a signal that television news is a protected, sacred resource. There is only a limited amount of time in a newscast, and every second of video showing happy, waving crowds for one candidate is time not spent talking about another. And, of course, the airwaves belong “to the people.”

There’s also a notion that political journalism is a particularly vital subset, without which our democracy could not function. I’ll buy the idea there are sleazy repercussions for the manipulation of journalism outlets. That line is drawn between persuasion and outright falsehoods. (Like astroturfing, when it can be proven.)

But I have to wonder how much of the disdain coming from television stations is a byproduct of the $49-million Whitman has spent on media so far? Why run the footage she is offering for free, when you can make her buy an outright political ad? It’s easy to stand on principle when it aligns with your bottom line.

Also, are the other campaigns just trying to neutralize Whitman’s bottomless checkbook and her early start? Would they be doing the same thing if they had the resources? I don’t see any moral and ethical question being floated around “the campaigns’ use of fax machines to provide carefully-crafted news releases that paint their candidate in only the most positive light.”

Redrawing the Lines

Again, I am not advocating for the Embedded Journalist model. It’s clear in this case that the video being shared – with no narration or editorial comment – isn’t replacing a reporter. In that sense, it is somewhat neutral point-of-view, but also is not finished and ready for air. I am just looking at the trends and the pace of change, and that model may end up filling a lot of needs, including that of public information.

What hasn’t fit neatly into this model is communication of a campaign nature. The Embedded Journalist gains some advantage through proximity and familiarity with the companies and industries it covers. In a finite campaign, that is a dynamic more about access and sticking to the script. The Embedded Journalist in a corporate setting would be more independent, almost like an ombudsman. That’s essential to build credibility, and without that credibility it is of no value to the company.

I just don’t see the concept working in a campaign that is too short (even by California standards) for the authenticity to accumulate.

I do, however, have a problem with Whitman’s opponents using scurrilous arguments about “level playing fields.” That’s the clear sign of a candidate that wishes it had the same finances. I would suppose a social-media friendly campaign that was very slickly produced and purchased would be just fine? Talking straight to the people? Or would it be castigated for circumventing the traditional media?

Your thoughts?

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  1. Barry Copeland says:

    Don’t know about the future of political journalism, but if what I observed this morning during the daily broadcast prepared and delivered by 3rd-5th graders at Trussville’s Paine Intermediate School is any indication, we’ll be in good hands for just the plain old news.  These kids are 9 and 10 years old, and they routinely (and with skill) prepare scripts, stories, graphics, music and (yes) switcher effects to give their fellow students at Paine a dose of news for the day.  It’s not hard-hitting but for Pette’s sake, they’re 4th graders!  They’re learning about the world by covering it – and that’s encouraging.  Hats off to Kristie Stacks, the savvy teacher who is guiding these youngsters.

    • Barry, Leeds Elementary has been doing a similar things for about 10 years now. Kids live in video, period.

      But when journalism becomes a commodity that 10-year-olds can master, is it any wonder that television stations can afford to pay bottom dollar for talent?


  1. Ike Pigott says:

    Are Politics a different animal when looking at the Future of Journalism? |

  2. Ike Pigott says:

    Does political journalism deserve to be treated differently?

  3. Ike Pigott says:

    How much of a political campaign is "helping the newsroom," and how much is too much?

  4. alisonlaw says:

    I read @ikepigott's posts on embedded journalists with keen interest. The latest is on future of political journalism:

  5. Debating political campaigns giving pre-packaged video to TV stations—great points by @ikepigott