Early Thursday, the Biden campaign sent a letter to The New York Times criticizing the paper for its coverage of President Trump’s allegations about Hunter Biden. The letter spotlighted recent reporting from the paper’s own Ken Vogel, as well as an op-ed on Hunter Biden from Peter Schweizer, a Breitbart contributor best known for his 2015 book, Clinton Cash, which contained inaccurate claims about Hillary and Bill Clinton. This is the second time the Biden campaign has clashed publicly with the press in recent weeks—in late September, another letter was sent to the major networks asking them to stop booking Rudy Giuliani, given his round the clock efforts to promote debunked conspiracy theories about Biden.
Whatever one thinks about Biden as a candidate, Hunter Biden’s career, or the political wisdom of the Biden campaign’s media critiques, one paragraph in the letter to the Times should be of interest to anyone who produces or follows political reporting:
In recent years the Times has become a leading perpetrator of one of the most corrosive trends in modern journalism—“savvy” reporting that prizes the identification of disingenuous political tactics at the expense of focusing on the facts that voters need to know. This unfortunate tendency was visible in the days the scandal that has led Trump to the brink of impeachment broke, as the Times rehashed this hateful and disproven conspiracy theory as though it hadn’t been put to bed. Two of our staff members, when discussing the Trump news with a pair of Times reporters, were stopped as they tried to outline how disproven the smear Trump wanted to pressure Ukraine into fomenting was, being told that this piece wasn’t about the facts of what happened and instead had to do with trying to forecast how it might play in the Democratic primary.
Anyone who doubts the reality of the dynamic the letter describes need only look at this week’s controversy concerning statements Elizabeth Warren has made over the years about her pregnancy and departure from a teaching job in 1971. Warren has said that she was pushed out of the job over that pregnancy and no hard evidence has ever been furnished proving otherwise, despite a Washington Free Beacon story Monday that dubiously suggested county records contradicted Warren’s account. Yet Warren’s pregnancy became a topic of discussion in the mainstream press, not only among opinion writers, but in straight news reportage and broadcasts which have speculated how the story might impact the primary campaign. One of them was a Wednesday segment on CBS This Morning with the network’s political correspondent Ed O’Keefe, which began with an anchor noting that “a series of reports” had questioned Warren’s story. “Some,” O’Keefe intoned, “have questioned her version of events.”
Of course, one can always find “some” questioning one thing or another about public figures. One standard that might help delineate which questions, “reports,” doubts, and concerns qualify as reportable news would be to reference them only after it is established that they are firmly based in fact. But political journalism is full of distancing, canned phrases that allow reporters to jump on new and potentially impactful information at the expense of accuracy, precision and clarity. Questions “surface.” Concerns “emerge.” But from whom and from where? And why should news consumers care?
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has, for several years now, alluded to a reporting paradigm he calls “the savvy” or “savviness.” He explained the concept in a 2011 speech:
In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)
Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.
This desire to know and project knowledge of who the winners are has long animated a conspicuously clubby style of political reporting that journalists have become more critical of in the Trump era. Last year, Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith wrote an essay acknowledging his own role in producing “amoral, tactical coverage” during his time at Politico and declaring the need for a “new political journalism built...for a moment of crisis.”
“[T]he focus of the American story in 2018 is not political tactics and personalities,” he wrote. “New outlets, including BuzzFeed News, have been moving away from the conventions of 2000s insider reporting for years.”
This is true, but one habit that remains, across all journalistic mediums and a wide variety of outlets, is a tendency towards prognostication. Speculation about what voters might think or might decide about the candidates and how they might fare in the elections in question still seems to occupy much more space in our papers and take up much more time in television news than straightforward coverage of what we firmly know about them—their personal biographies, their political backgrounds, and their platforms. Campaign reporters spend more time telling voters what voters think than they do relaying facts—on a particular policy proposal, on a particular bill a candidate may have voted on—voters might not know about.
Since the beginning of October, The New York Times has published eighty-three stories categorized on their website as “Election 2020” coverage as of Saturday morning. Eight of them have had the solutions offered by the candidates to address the problems facing the country as their main subject. Those articles have competed for space and clicks with speculation about quarterly fundraising totals and multiple pieces about the “questions” Bernie Sanders “will inevitably face” about his heart attack. Dubious material can become news in this kind of culture. The allegations about Hunter Biden could, indeed, impact the primary race. This is in part because mainstream media outlets spend time discussing them. When we read political reporting—perhaps when we read much of the news in general—we are looking to an independent variable for announcements about dependent variables.
There’s no clear way out of this dynamic and it’s not obvious that it’s fully a problem. We value journalism, in part, because we hope, perhaps naively, that the material journalists put into the world can guide decision-making. But the conventions of the contemporary press hold that some sorting of that material is necessary for the public’s sake—clear facts must be separated from disputable non-facts, especially politically charged opinions. The major papers have been particularly scrupulous about this distinction on certain matters—respected voices in the newspaper world routinely urge caution about describing clear patterns of misinformation from politicians as “lies.” The Trump era has seen papers like the Times deploy a variety of euphemisms for the word “racist.”
This caution lapses considerably for other material, including predictions and assessments of political viability. A Times article last week—news, not opinion—about how the Ukraine controversy may impact Joe Biden’s current standing in the Democratic primary contains this paragraph:
Now Mr. Biden looks more vulnerable than at any point since he entered the campaign. Facing one of the greatest challenges of his candidacy, Mr. Biden has plainly struggled to meet the moment, or fully reconcile his own cautious instincts with his protectiveness of his family’s privacy and his preference for taking the moral high road against Mr. Trump.
The fact that there may well be good reasons to believe any or all of these assertions about the Biden campaign does not change the fact that these are, clearly, opinions. On Friday, the Times published another piece about Biden that referred to him as a “wounded leading candidate”—accompanied by a graph that showed Biden not only rising a bit in the national polling average but still ahead of his standing after a deeper dip in the polls, four months ago, than his recent slide.
Contestable claims about political candidates and speculation about elections obviously have a place in our discourse. They are well within the purview of opinion journalism, which this magazine produces. But the major media outlets—particularly the major papers—often proudly claim they are devoted mostly to a different, nobler project: delivering the news free from both the spin of professional hacks as well as the slanted takes of pundits and partisan analysts, who are penned away in opinion sections.
But the walls the press has erected between what gets called news and the often speculative stuff of opinion have proven to be porous—a large share of campaign coverage, even at the major newspapers, seems to occupy a liminal space between between just-the-facts reporting and punditry. The latter, which we might call “repunditry” for the lack of a better term, is nevertheless routinely packaged as, or embedded within, the former.
Some of this slippage arises from a tension identified by Walter Lippmann, a founder of this magazine, in his 1922 book Public Opinion. There is a difference, he argued, between what we commonly recognize as “news” and what we understand to be “truth.”
The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act. Only at those points, where social conditions take recognizable and measurable shape, do the body of truth and the body of news coincide.
While we’re informed about particular events and particular realities when we read the news, Lippman explained, that granular material in and of itself, absent context and interpretation, doesn’t amount to a complete picture of reality. Our sense of the world around us depends on a weaving together of disparate facts. That weaving, Lippmann argued, is an inherently subjective process. “The story of why John Smith failed, his human frailties, the analysis of the economic conditions on which he was shipwrecked—all of this can be told in a hundred different ways,” he wrote.
This is less of a conundrum for opinion-based outlets than it is for institutions that purport to pin down and present to the public a clean, unslanted version of the truth—as amorphous and complicated as it is—through granular news coverage of events. This is an impossibility for Lippmann. The truth cannot be reduced to a particular set of hard, indisputable facts about particular events that might be reported as news. “Unless the event is capable of being named, measured, given shape, made specific,” he wrote, “it either fails to take on the character of news, or it is subject to the accidents and prejudices of observation.” But we expect truth from the straight press anyway, encouraging straight political reporters to provide inevitably subjective context. These slips in and out of subjectivity—the subtle, barely there bits of speculation—this is repunditry.
Lippmann’s skepticism of the straight press’ ability to fulfill its designated role as society’s source of reliably unbiased information deepened his skepticism of democracy—or at least democracy as we know it. Those of us more committed to the democratic project should think deeply about how well the major press is serving it, and whether media outlets, in their mission to inform the public, are doing enough to tell the public what, exactly, they are consuming when they consume the news. Clarity on the part of straight news outlets in the habit of repunditry could come either from a more direct embrace of subjectivity or a more thorough commitment to straightness: campaign reporting that simply tells readers what can indisputably be said about who candidates are, what they have done, and what they intend to do. In particular, outlets should reconsider whether guessing aloud to voters how voters might vote is the most unique and valuable service they can provide to the public. Many of the major outlets, in polling partnerships, already make representative data on public opinion readily available. This is a more reliable source of information than trends extrapolated from anecdotes in diners or at campaign stops, and anyone who wants these numbers explained and contextualized can turn to a variety of professional forecasters.
The outcome of the 2020 Democratic primary will be revealed soon enough. In the meanwhile, campaign season resources should be reinvested in coverage of what our elections are ultimately for: questions of public policy. We should be hearing more about the issues, not just where the candidates stand on them, but where other people who have given thought to them—academics and researchers, activists, and, of course, the people most impacted—stand. What we lose in dubious claims about what may or may not “play” with voters, we might gain in a greater understanding of the matters that make politics important.