Supreme Court, and has now named Stephen Bannon, until recently the executive chairman of Breitbart—a right-wing fringe website with a penchant for conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic tropes—to serve as one of his top White House advisers. Needless to say, none of this has any modern precedent. And what makes it unique has nothing to do with the outcome of the election. This is no mere academic argument. The election of showed us that Americans are increasingly choosing to live in a cloud of like-minded spin, surrounded by the partisan political hackery and fake news that poisons their Facebook feeds.
A Free Press Needs You
I first came to work in Washington at the back end of the s, during the second-term funk of the Reagan Revolution, as the city obsessed over the Iran-Contra scandal and the rise of rabble-rousing conservatives on Capitol Hill led by a funny-haired guy named Newt Gingrich. Within a few years, Gingrich and Co. One November afternoon during my junior year in college I took a nap and when I went downstairs a short while later, I found the security guard in the dorm lobby staring incredulously at a tiny portable TV that had suddenly materialized on his desk.
That, plus whatever was your local daily newspaper, pretty much constituted the news. They were great—but they were generalists. Which was why I felt lucky to have landed at a newspaper that was an early harbinger of the media revolution to come. Under its new management, Roll Call would now aspire to create real original reporting and scoops for an exclusive audience made up of members of Congress—and the thousands of staffers, lobbyists, political consultants, and activists who served them or sought to influence them.
This was a pretty radical departure for a quirky tabloid that had been launched by a Hill aide named Sidney Yudain just as the McCarthy era was ending in the s.
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In this day and age when we celebrate new technology as the source of all media innovation, it seems decidedly retro, but it worked, as both journalism and a business: He hired a staff of aggressive young reporters—I started as an intern in the summer of , then returned full-time after graduating in —and set them loose on the backstage news of Washington. Let Congressional Quarterly send legions of scribes to write down what was said at dull committee hearings, he decreed; Roll Call would skip the boring analyses of policy to cover what really mattered to DC—the process and the people.
To make it a must-read, Jim had another rule that made lots of sense: Nothing on our front page should have appeared anywhere else. Soon his reporters were delivering. One of them, Tim Burger, broke the story of the massive overdrafts by free-spending congressmen that would become known as the House Bank scandal, contributing to the exit of dozens of members in the elections and helping set the stage for the Gingrich revolution, when Republicans would finally take back control of the House of Representatives for the first time in more than forty years.
Roll Call undercut the competition, at first charging as little as a few thousand dollars per page to target, far more efficiently, the audience that the advertisers wanted. Soon, we were coming out twice a week. Not long after, when I met Bo Jones, then the publisher of The Washington Post , the first thing he said to me was what a mistake the Post had made by not buying Roll Call itself. This was still journalism in the scarcity era, and it affected everything from what stories we wrote to how fast we could produce them.
Presidents could launch global thermonuclear war with the Russians in a matter of minutes, but news from the American hinterlands often took weeks to reach their sleepy capital. Even information within that capital was virtually unobtainable without a major investment of time and effort. Want to know how much a campaign was raising and spending from the new special-interest PACs that had proliferated?
Looking for details about foreign countries lobbying in Washington or big companies paying huge fees?
The Hotline was a faxed newsletter that came out late morning every day, a compilation of headlines and news nuggets from around the country. We were addicted to it.
The same proliferation of news—and noise—was happening all over town. We all watched those too. In , I started work at The Washington Post as the investigative editor on the national desk.
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At the Post , I soon learned, internet access was still handed out as a privilege to individual editors on a need-to-have-it basis. Needless to say, the wheels ground slowly. By the time the story culminated in a presidential confession and an unprecedented Senate impeachment trial and acquittal, the internet would no longer be considered a perk but a necessity for our news-gathering. And when the slow machinery of government responded to the new, faster era by releasing its legal filings and document dumps electronically then as now these would invariably occur late on Friday afternoons, preferably before a holiday weekend , we in turn responded by making them available online for all the world to see.
The old presses shook the Post building starting around 10 p. The nightly 6 p. Although we had a website by then and published our articles on it each night, the national editors of the Post still trusted the more ancient methods of finding out what the competition was up to: at 9 p. Before we headed out, we went up to the ninth floor of the boxy old Post building on 15th Street in downtown Washington to say goodbye to owner Don Graham. As the conversation ended, we asked Don how the paper was doing. Four years later, when we returned from Moscow and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the classifieds were essentially gone.
But hundreds of reporters and editors were still showing up at the giant newsroom each day to produce a print newspaper, while the website that would be its future—or its demise—was still largely an afterthought run by a team both legally and physically separated from the newsroom, across the Potomac River in a soulless office tower in Arlington, Virginia.
I am writing this in the immediate, shocking aftermath of a presidential election in which the Pew Research Center found that a higher percentage of Americans got their information about the campaign from late-night TV comedy shows than from a national newspaper. Don Graham sold the Post three years ago and though its online audience has been skyrocketing with new investments from Amazon.
In the presidential race 18—29 years old say social media. Everyone else says cable news. Take Roll Call , whose trajectory since I worked there reveals much about the ups and downs of Washington journalism.
The Fall and Rise of Partisan Journalism
First came The Hill , a new competitor that launched in and has recently positioned itself as a sort of down-market, high-traffic internet tabloid for Washington. Think of them as analogous to antibodies and white blood cells, establishing and patrolling the barriers between the body politic and would-be hijackers on the outside.
As with biology, so with politics: When the immune system works, it is largely invisible. Only when it breaks down do we become aware of its importance. Beginning early in the 20th century, and continuing right up to the present, reformers and the public turned against every aspect of insider politics: professional politicians, closed-door negotiations, personal favors, party bosses, financial ties, all of it. To some extent, the reformers were right. They had good intentions and valid complaints.
Back in the s, as a teenager in the post-Watergate era, I was on their side. Why allow politicians ever to meet behind closed doors? Sunshine is the best disinfectant! Why allow private money to buy favors and distort policy making? Ban it and use Treasury funds to finance elections!
It was easy, in those days, to see that there was dirty water in the tub. What was not so evident was the reason the water was dirty, which was the baby. So we started reforming. We reformed the nominating process. The use of primary elections instead of conventions, caucuses, and other insider-dominated processes dates to the era of Theodore Roosevelt, but primary elections and party influence coexisted through the s; especially in congressional and state races, party leaders had many ways to influence nominations and vet candidates. According to Jon Meacham, in his biography of George H.
Pryor, a top Pan Am executive and a mover in Connecticut politics, called Prescott to ask whether Bush might like to run for Congress.
The Fall and Rise of Partisan Journalism – Center for Journalism Ethics
Primary races now tend to be dominated by highly motivated extremists and interest groups, with the perverse result of leaving moderates and broader, less well-organized constituencies underrepresented. According to the Pew Research Center, in the first 12 presidential-primary contests of , only 17 percent of eligible voters participated in Republican primaries, and only 12 percent in Democratic primaries.
In other words, Donald Trump seized the lead in the primary process by winning a mere plurality of a mere fraction of the electorate. Moreover, recent research by the political scientists Jamie L. Carson and Jason M. Roberts finds that party leaders of yore did a better job of encouraging qualified mainstream candidates to challenge incumbents.
The paradoxical result is that members of Congress today are simultaneously less responsive to mainstream interests and harder to dislodge. Was the switch to direct public nomination a net benefit or drawback?