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Live-Blogging Politics Online 2007: How Political Journalism is Changing

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, March 16 2007

Here's my semi-verbatim but not for direct quotation transcript of this morning's fascinating panel on how the web is changing political journalism. The players: Moderator: Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine, Speakers: David Plotz, Slate; Jim Brady, WashingtonPost.com and Jay Rosen, NewAssignment.net.

Jarvis:
It strikes me that there is a different dynamic in the political reporting space. Political reporting isn't really reporting, it's repeating what you're hearing from the campaigns, prognostication, speculation, analysis and opinion. The body of facts isn't the same as in other fields of reporting. Asks Jim Brady how the bloggers change the work of political reporting.

Brady:
The first thing that changes is citizens can be everywhere. They can cover more ground, even than newspapers with big staffs. You're already seeing it with PrezVid and how much video there is of campaign stops. Now everyone is running around with video hoping to get a 'macaca' moment. There is a downside, but mostly I think this is positive. There are bloggers that are doing serious reporting on a daily basis, and newspapers that aren't.

Plotz:
What are the negatives of politicians being covered all the time?

Brady:
My only fear is that there used to be freelancing between speeches. So my fear is that people are more cautious, and they get so stiff and rehearsed that nothing interesting happens. It may take spontaneity out of campaigns that have very little to start with.

Plotz:
I think 'macaca' has created a sense of any politician can be tripped up and say something stupid. I am hoping that instead this will allow people to be more human, rather than less.

Brady:
If you look at the 'macaca' moment and Kerry's "I voted for this before I voted against it," they got traction because these moments reinforced notions we already had about these candidates.

Jarvis:
I just came back from London and Webcameron, David Cameron's thing, is way ahead of what we have here. Same with Sarkozy in France. There goal is to be seen as more human. The question is whether we, the people, will be forgiving of their humanity, instead of going batshit over them.
Jay, you've talked often about the narrative of press think about the campaigns, that it's the horse race, and the spin. But now that more people can comment, does this change the essential press narrative of elections?

Rosen:
I'm pessimistic about that. Journalists have been complaining themselves for more than 20 years about the weakness of the horse race narrative, but it doesn't change. You have to go back to the reason for that. The problem is campaign reporting. All the information is held by the campaigns, and very little new comes out except what they release, and they are obsessed with controlling it. So coverage naturally gravitates to that: money, process, etc. Over time the industry of running campaigns has taken possession of the process. By 2000 it produced a campaign so utterly devoid of interest that a lot of people got disgusted with it. The web came along and scrambled this. Because it affects certain choke points. For example, it used to be about raising money to make ads to put on TV. But that is being opened up. When you find when people who have monopolized that process confronted with new conditions, they claim that they are on top of it, when they aren't changing. Now we have some hope because the truth is that there's all these outside people that can have some role.

Brady:
The web removes some of the chokepoints. It allows for citizens to get around that. If you want to watch five Mitt Romney speeches on YouTube you can.

Plotz:
The kinds of stories readers on our site want to read are kind of horse-racey and numerical. How do you get them to eat their vegetables too?

Rosen:
I don't think there's any way out of this frame, horse-race vs issues, the journalists are convinced that people don't want issues. The wild card is all the people excluded by that earlier process and all the thing they can do. I don't think the information coming out of campaigns and what the reporters do that will change.
The campaigns are run on the same principles as the media...it's great that you're out there listening to us and here's some more things we think you want to hear. If I were a reporter, I'd be covering the ways the outsiders are going to affect the campaigns.

Jarvis:
How about the reverse, does this give campaigns a way to get around the reporters?

Plotz:
Yes, the campaigns can go directly to the voters, but we can still criticize them, we can parody them, mash them up, etc.

Jarvis:
So Hillary Clinton has called her campaign a conversation. Can a campaign be one? Or are they necessarily propagandistic, getting a message out? Even on the Dean blog that was what it was about.

Brady:
I think it's more like a conversation that you have at a job interview, not the kind that you have over a beer. I'm skeptical of that. I'd love people sitting there answering straight questions completely honestly. We go through this with each cycle, that we think we are going to find out who these people really are, and then by election day we say, why haven't we talked about the issues? I think the key thing in this campaign is going to be how do these people react to being covered all the time.

Rosen:
There's a problem with this question, that we're going to find out who these people really are. I think that is a vain hope. We should change that to, let's force these people to be who they really are in public. Instead of trying to strip away a false facade. One thing that could change is this: in every campaign the candidate and his advisers decide things that they don't want to talk about. But these may be things that the public wants to know about. We can try to get them to talk about those things. We can try to get them to be realer in that sense, in trying to get them to address the topics that people want to hear about.

Jarvis:
So, who does it? The real person in New Hampshire or Iowa? How will that work? Does the citizen or voter have a different positions than the journalist, in asking a candidate these questions?

Brady:
Inasmuch as everyone of these informal meetings will be recorded by somebody. [lost the thread] I think it will be really interesting to see how the campaigns alter their message based on where they are putting their ads, for example, it's fascinating how the tone changes by region. There's a billion different ways to tunnel into what's going on out there.

Jarvis:
Four years ago, Jay, you urged reporters to boycott the spin sessions after the debates. Does more stuff coming out means more spin? Or do they give up on trying? Does the spinometer go up or down?

Rosen:
Reporters claim to hate spin, but I don't believe them. Because it allows them to cut through it. If it weren't for spin, what would their job be. What I wrote four years ago was "Raize Spin Alley." But it is well suited to their reporting requirements. I need a quote, I need it on deadline. It's something that both sides are making together.

Brady:
If there's a spin room after a debate and you don't go and that's the one time that something interesting happens, you're in trouble.

Jarvis:
How can the campaign story change, then?

Plotz:
I love Jay's idea of getting rid of the authenticity narrative. It has been a bane of campaigns. People thought they knew who Bush was as a person and they missed the fact of how he would