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Puzzles in the Economics and Politics of Trade

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (John F. Harris Edition)

John F. Harris of the Politico, formerly of the Washington Post, confesses that he doesn't even try to do his job of informing Americans about which politicians would make good presidents and legislators--furthest thing from his mind:

Media hype: How small stories become big news: The signature defect of modern political journalism is that it has shredded the ideal of proportionality. Important stories, sometimes the product of months of serious reporting, that in an earlier era would have captured the attention of the entire political-media community and even redirected the course of a presidential campaign, these days can disappear with barely a whisper. Trivial stories — the kind that are tailor-made for forwarding to your brother-in-law or college roommate with a wisecracking note at the top — can dominate the campaign narrative for days... modern journalism as hyperkinetic child — overstimulated by speed and hunger for a head-turning angle that will draw an audience. The truth about what Clinton said — and any fair-minded appraisal of what she meant — was entirely beside the point....

On Friday afternoon, I heard my colleague, Politico reporter Jonathan Martin, bellow in excitement as he called me over to his desk. Martin was furiously typing away, not looking up as he told me the latest: Clinton had given an interview to the editorial board of the Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota in which she answered inquiries into why she is staying in the race by citing the fact that it’s only May, and RFK had been shot and killed in June. Here is what I was thinking: Wow. Maybe she has come unhinged?... for Clinton to give public voice to such a scenario is bizarre. This is going to be a big story.... Here is what I said: Martin, quick get that item up! He needed no prompting....

The way to build traffic on the Web is to get links.... The way to get links is to be first.... We are unapologetic in our premium on high velocity... we are not different from nearly all news sites these days, not just new publications but established ones like The New York Times.... Martin was quick getting the item about Clinton’s Argus Leader comment up on his Politico blog.... I urged Martin to keep his foot on the gas: Be the first to post reaction....

Perhaps half an hour after the story broke Martin called me back over to his desk. It turned out the Argus Leader had video of its big interview. I huddled over Martin’s computer as we watched. It was a deflating experience. The RFK remarks were deep in a 20-minute clip of an otherwise routine conversation... hardly an electric moment. Clinton does indeed mention the Kennedy assassination, speaking in a calm and analytical tone... Clinton’s error was not in saying something beyond the pale but in saying something that pulled from context would sound as if it were beyond the pale.... It is a small story if Clinton said something like this: “Everyone talks like May is incredibly late, but by historical standards it is not. Think of all the famous milestones in presidential races that have taken place during June.” It seems pretty obvious that the latter is what Clinton meant, and not too far from what she actually said. It was not surprising that the Argus Leader’s executive editor, Randall Beck, put out a statement saying, “Her reference to Mr. Kennedy’s assassination appeared to focus on the time line of his primary candidacy and not the assassination itself.”...

Clinton’s clumsiness does not excuse news media clumsiness in making a minor story seem like a major one.... Keeping one’s journalistic bearings amid a hype storm is a challenge.... In the early months of this publication... a short news item broken by Ben Smith about John Edwards’ $400 haircut became one of our most-trafficked stories... we handled that news nugget with a decent sense of proportion. The item, for instance, never led our site.... Velocity is a virtue in the Web world, and we are not going to stop trying to be fast off the mark — for relevant and fairly reported stories. What Clinton said about Robert Kennedy, whether it was cold or just a bit clueless, was newsworthy, and Martin’s original blog post was responsible in framing the context of her remark. He was equally quick to post her clarification and apology. The uproar was never the lead of our site....

Once, the elite papers and network news set the agenda, and others followed suit, following up on what these establishment pillars deemed important. Now it’s just the opposite. The conservative old voices increasingly take their cues from the newer, more daring ones... a news culture in which — like the amplifiers for “Spinal Tap” that go up to 11 — everything is exaggerated may not seem like a big deal.

But the consequences are more serious than meets the eye.... Only a news media with the focus and discipline to distinguish a big story from a small one can hold politicians accountable — and produce the work that deserves an audience.

I do wonder how he can look at himself in the mirror in the morning. It is a mystery.

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