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The vicious cycle of modern political journalism
5 trends eroding trust between the media and politicians
Longleaf Politics is back! I wasn’t planning to get back to it so quickly, but your overwhelmingly kind response to my column last week has filled me with energy. So here we go again. Look for Longleaf Politics in your inbox every Monday morning with a column, quick takes, short blurbs and a new “Memes of the Week” feature.
On with the show:
The vicious cycle of modern political journalism
Jim Morrill is retiring after four decades at The Charlotte Observer, including 33 years of political reporting. It’s cliche to call retirements the “end of an era,” but in this case it’s true. Jim was the last of the old guard in North Carolina political media. What’s left would be unrecognizable to the press corps of 1987, when Jim entered the scene.
A bit of disclosure: I worked with Jim starting as an intern on the business desk of the Observer. Jim invited me over to his home, treated me with respect and showed me the ropes. When I came on the paper full-time, Jim was always a friend.
When Jim called sources, he asked for a conversation, not canned statements. He listened and tried to understand. He sought to be fair, got to know his subjects as people and operated with humility and confidence. Jim picked up the phone when it rang, too, always willing to talk things out.
Jim was in it for the reader and in it for the long haul, and it showed. That’s why so many people are pouring out praise as he writes his last stories.
If these things sound simple, they are. But it’s just not the way political reporting works anymore. We’re stuck in a toxic cycle that cannot be undone - and one that leaves everyone frustrated.
Shrinking staffs, deadline pressure and click goals push journalists to write quick-hit pieces that play well online. This erodes trust with politicians. Because politicians don’t trust the media, they decline interview requests, keep travel schedules close to the vest, and communicate through prepared statements. This erodes trust with journalists. And the cycle continues.
Of course, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here. There’s blame on both sides. But here are a few trends fueling the cycle that I noticed through my job in political communications. Before anybody gets too uptight, I’m speaking in generalities - not every reporter in every circumstance.
Modern political reporting is transactional and manufactured
Most reporting from mainstream outlets these days is done by email. When a reporter sends you a message, they typically already have their story written and sometimes even published — they just want a statement that they can tack on to the end.
The story is completely conceptualized beforehand by the reporter or editor, especially the headline. The reporter’s task is simply to fill in the quotes and facts needed to back it up.
There’s little to no chance that anything a subject says will change the story. There’s precious little pursuit of truth and even fewer open and honest discussions.
This allows so much bias to seep into news coverage — what stories are covered, what questions are asked, who gets treated skeptically, how stories are framed, how headlines are written, and who is the “bad guy.”
Journalists’ worldview doesn’t align with conservatives
As newsrooms have shrunk, they’ve gotten even more liberal. That leaves little common ground with conservative candidates or elected officials. Journalists bring to their reporting certain assumptions - guns are bad, expanding government is good, business is evil - that color their questions and stories. It’s difficult to have an open and honest conversation about policy when there’s no agreement over a common set of ideals.
Particularly in North Carolina, reporters have been conditioned over the past decade to view Republicans with suspicion and Democrats as the valiant underdog. A conservative’s statement will be disclaimed, while a progressive’s will be given the benefit of the doubt.
Business model and audience reward “gotcha” headlines
For years now, media outlets have rewarded page views more than any other metric. And in-depth, even-handed dives into policy simply don’t get enough page views to justify the investment of time and energy. Instead, journalists use Twitter and Facebook to gauge what’s already getting attention, then whip it into a news article to pump back on Twitter and Facebook.
Conflict, outrage and partisanship thrive on social media. The facts will always be twisted to further those ends.
Partisan aggregators are lurking
Even if you trust a certain reporter or media outlet, there’s a serious disincentive to speak openly with them: Hyper-partisan news aggregators. These outlets read through on-the-ground reporting looking to pull partial quotes that they can twist into the aforementioned conflict or outrage.
An example: Madison Cawthorn opened up to a reporter from the Jewish Insider about everything from his election night tweets to evangelism, and the resulting article was fair. But this toxic ecosystem swung into action, taking his comments about evangelizing in the Jewish community and turning it into hit pieces that garnered a much greater reach than the original.
You can control your own message
This is likely the biggest factor of all. Playing nice with the media used to be required because they controlled the best means to communicate at scale. If you wanted to speak to the voters, you typically had to go through the media. Not anymore. Social media allows politicians the ability to build their own audience and reach them economically. Why bother being filtered through a biased reporter when you can pay Facebook a relatively small fee to reach them yourself? And with no paywall, to boot.
Bottom line: The mainstream media still matters - for now
None of this is the end of the world. It’s just another reflection of the end of the mass media era. For most of U.S. history, a fragmented, partisan media dominated the landscape. That’s the direction we’re headed once again. It’s not good or bad, really. It just is. The result: Politicians will soon speak only to media outlets on their side, and then communicate directly with the people via email and social media.
But in 2020, the mainstream media still matters. Fewer people are reading their stories, but people in power still read them and care about them. Donors care. Business owners care. There’s still a percentage of swing voters who pay attention to mainstream media. In a purple state, even a 1% swing can make the difference between victory and defeat.
Lara Trump floating bid for North Carolina's 2022 Senate seat. So says the New York Times. We’ll go in-depth on the 2022 Senate field soon, but Lara Trump would immediately be a front-runner. She’s a dynamic speaker and traveled extensively across the state speaking to Republican groups during her father-in-law’s two presidential campaigns. Should she enter the race, the result would be a fascinating look at the Trump political brand. To refresh your memory, the last time a Trump had a competitive race in North Carolina, then-candidate Trump took 40% of North Carolina's vote in the March 2016 primary, winning by 4 points over Ted Cruz (John Kasich was the only other candidate to get over 10% of the vote).
Justice Cheri Beasley loses credibility. In a statement, the sitting Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court said she was challenging the exclusion of roughly 2,000 absentee and provisional ballots, to make sure every vote was counted. However, turns out she only wanted Democrat votes counted. With President Trump making similar partisan moves at the same time, it doesn’t seem like Bealey will get the backing of her party on this one — the backlash has come from both political sides.
Wiley Nickel is running for Congress. Kind of. On the state senator's paperwork creating an exploratory committee for federal office, he put down District 00. That's because Nickel is not looking to challenge anyone (yet), he's eyeing the likely new Congressional seat that will come with this year's Census. If he were a Republican, I'd say he's staking out a claim and hoping his colleagues in the General Assembly carve him out a good district. But since he's a Democrat, this doesn't apply. Most likely, he's angling to be included in every single media story about redistricting and to get a bigger cut of that sweet, sweet ActBlue money.
Remote learning is failing students. 25% of Wake County students failed a class in the first quarter, 35% in New Hanover, and a whopping 40% in Guilford.
Governor Cooper's criminal justice reform task force has decided to recommend decriminalizing marijuana possession and "further study" legalization.
Charlotte raked in record TV ad spend during the political campaign. Read the winners and losers on the Charlotte Ledger (🔒): How political spending bailed out Charlotte's TV stations
Republicans earned as much as 20% of African-American votes this year, according to a Civitas exit poll.
Memes of the week
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