16. Are we rational in choosing what content we consume? Why do we care more about Charlie Christ’s fan than issues and policy positions? Why do we care more about every detail of the tiny chance Ebola will spread in the United States than the basics of the thousands of people Ebola has killed in West Africa? Why do we care more about gaffes and personal tidbits uncovered by opposition researchers than policy issues?
Don’t be afraid to say yes, that we are rational. Could it be that fangate, gaffes and opposition research shed light on candidates’ personalities in ways that quickly help us make more informed decisions than we would otherwise, if we wouldn’t have had time anyway to dive into the issues? Could it be that as much as we empathize with and wish we could help those in West Africa, amid our busy schedules we need to hear more about even the remote possibility Ebola will infect our community than spread in a faraway land unfamiliar to us?
Can and should media companies realign incentives in public discourse so that conversations center on “important” subjects (whatever those are)? If people want coverage of trivial issues and a respectable media company refuses to cover them, won’t that media company lose to another media company that gives the people what they want, leading to the demise of respectable media companies? What does “respectable” even mean — are media companies in a position to decide what content people should consume?
How should POLITICO decide what to cover? Are our hands tied when it comes to covering scandals revealed by opposition research? What coverage would bring us the most revenue? What coverage would help the world the most? Are those different? How are they related to coverage that people are willing to pay for, or coverage that advertisers are willing to sponsor?
American Journalism Review (Mary Clare Fischer)
March 19, 2014
Curious about how many people were reading his stories, [Verge journalist Russell] Brandom asked managing editor Nilay Patel for access to The Verge’s Google Analytics account.
“He was basically like, ‘Yeah, we’re not gonna do that,” said Brandom, who was surprised because he was accustomed to checking his pageviews at his prior job as an intern for BuzzFeed.
Editors at The Verge said they don’t share detailed site metrics with writers because they want them to cover what’s important, not just what’s trendy.
Patel said only the senior editorial leadership team can see the Google Analytics dashboard, which provides data on everything from pageviews to historical statistics. The publication also doesn’t broadly distribute access to Chartbeat, which provides real-time data on who is clicking on what stories.
That policy appears to be unusual for a news organization, judging by a sampling of 10 other publications contacted for this story. …
While many news organizations freely share site metrics with their staff members, the growing availability of pageview and engagement data raises thorny news judgment questions that editors and reporters are grappling with on a daily basis.
POLITICO (Kenneth P. Vogel and Byron Tau)
September 19, 2014
Why would anyone want to talk about immigration, terrorism, gun control or the national debt, when there’s Alison Lundergan Grimes’ bus, John Walsh’s thesis, Bruce Braley’s chickens and Pat Roberts’ recliner?
Gotcha stories — ranging from those tangentially related to issues of the day to the completely ephemeral and even absurd — have been front and center in an abnormally large number of top races this year. And many of the most memorable hits bear the hallmarks of opposition research — the unglamorous grunt work of combing through public records and, increasingly, tracking candidates in search of a compromising vote, court filing, financial transaction or quote.
In an election in which candidates have mostly dodged the big issues facing the country, the dark art known as “oppo” seems to be filling the void. And the trend lines suggest oppo’s golden age may just be beginning.
There’s the growing intensity of a media cycle fueled by the salacious and voyeuristic. And, while there is exponentially more information available online about politicians and anyone in public life, there are ever fewer traditional political journalists to process and report on it.
Some of the best oppo hits are never definitively traced back to such research, or are only revealed well after the election. … After POLITICO in May broke the news that Oregon GOP Senate candidate Monica Wehby was accused by her ex-boyfriend of “stalking” him, The Oregonian revealed that the police report on which the story was based had been requested first by a Democratic Party researcher.
Related reading: Strategists explain why oppo rules the news (POLITICO)
New York Times Magazine (Matt Bai)
September 18, 2014
Back then, Hart was as close to a lock for the nomination — and likely the presidency — as any challenger of the modern era.
… Hart…was taken down and eternally humiliated by a scandal, a suspected affair with a beautiful blonde whose name, Donna Rice, had entered the cultural lexicon, along with the yacht — Monkey Business — near which she had been photographed on his lap.
How could he not have known this would happen? How could such a smart guy have been that stupid?
Of course, you could reasonably have asked that same question of the three most important political figures of Hart’s lifetime, all Democratic presidents thought of as towering successes. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were adulterers, before and during their presidencies, and we can safely assume they had plenty of company. In his 1978 memoir, Theodore White, the most prolific and influential chronicler of presidential politics in the last half of the 20th century, wrote that he was “reasonably sure” that of all the candidates he had covered, only three — Harry Truman, George Romney and Jimmy Carter — hadn’t enjoyed the pleasure of “casual partners.” He and his colleagues considered those affairs irrelevant.
By the late 1980s, however, a series of powerful, external forces in the society were colliding, creating a dangerous vortex on the edge of our politics. Hart didn’t create that vortex. He was, rather, the first to wander into its path. …
… the nation’s news media were changing in profound ways.
It would be hard to overstate the impact [Watergate] had, especially on younger reporters. If you were one of the new breed of middle-class, Ivy League-educated baby boomers who had decided to change the world through journalism, then there was simply no one you could want to become more than Woodward or Bernstein, which is to say, there was no greater calling than to expose the lies of a politician, no matter how inconsequential those lies might turn out to be or in how dark a place they might be lurking.
Related reading: Did the Gary Hart Scandal Really Ruin Politics? (POLITICO)
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media
In the past 25 years, the Big Three broadcast television networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, have experienced a significant decline in the share of the prime-time viewing audience. In 1980, more than 90% of television viewers were tuned in to one of these three networks during prime time.
…audiences no longer can be expected to believe it when told “that’s the way it is” by a grandfatherly, Caucasian news anchor. Distrust of social institutions is not, as Putnam (2000) argues, the result of too much television viewing. Instead, distrust can be viewed as a healthy and honest recognition that institutions do not benefit everyone equally, particularly when “everyone” is an increasingly diverse mix of potential sources of organized social power (Tichenor et al., 1980).
By New York Magazine (Margaret Hartmann)
March 9, 2014
…On Sunday night, [Ezra] Klein revealed that the site previously referred to as “Project X” will be known as Vox.com. A short video posted on the site explained that the idea is to make the “vegetables” or “spinach” of the news world — those articles we should read but don’t — more palatable. “It’s a terrible attitude,” says Klein. “If we can’t take things that are important and meaningful in people’s lives and make them interesting, that failure is 100 percent on us as writers. That is entirely our fault.”