The Irresistible External Force

What would a “classic of American reporting” be titled today?  Maybe “Regular Citizens in Living Rooms,” or “Kids on the Net.”  The title “Boys on the Bus” certainly would not describe the 21st century media environment in which the 2008 presidential election finds itself.


Crouse describes journalism as the “slowest-moving, most tradition-bound profession” that “refuses to budge until it is shoved into the future by some irresistible external force.”  Today that force is the Internet and the glacier that is political journalism is slowly budging.  The First Campaign” is where we are in 2008, with this presidential election being “run as much on the World Wide Web as in union halls and town squares and on television,” according to Graff.


The most significant change from 1972 to 2008?  There is no Walter Mears.  There is no single reporter or single outlet with the power and influence that “heavies” such as Mears and Johnny Apple held over presidential elections in the days when people received their news once in the morning and once in the evening from one or two outlets.  Today, voters can get whatever news they want, in whatever form they want, whenever they want it.  They can bypass the media entirely and learn about the candidates’ online, they can watch an entire campaign event on You Tube, and they can debate with their neighbor down the street or an 80-year old man across the country without ever leaving their living room.  It seems the reverse from 1972 is true today:  voters do not need journalists, journalists, desperate for coverage and readership, need voters.


The “pack journalism” that defined the coverage in 1972 is still the way it works.  That is to be expected as Crouse points out that “campaign coverage is by definition pack journalism.”  In this virtual world, entry to the pack is wide open and accessible for anyone to join the conversation.   It is still a pack, just more diverse and fast-paced than ever.


Of course, the “heavies” are still with us today but now they are competing with the college kid at the campaign event with a digital camera, the housewife who asks President Clinton a question, and the donor who covers a fundraising event with his cellphone.  And it seems journalists are feeling the push of the Internet, that “irresistible external force.”


“Not only do the reporters have little interaction with the candidates, but increasingly they are having little impact on the broad campaign narratives and daily story lines that supply most voters with their impressions of the candidates.  That’s more often taking place in cable studios or on Web sites far removed from the ceaseless grind of the press bubble — in which reporters schlump on and off the plane, in and out of buses and gymnasiums-turned-filing centers, several times a day, dozens of times a week.  A combination of technology and iron message discipline by heavily centralized campaigns has consigned these reporters – once the storied “boys on the bus” – largely to feeding off the public material available to almost anyone over the Web, with very little interaction with the next president of the United States.”

         Mike Allen, Politico, 9.18.08


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