Opinion

Jack Shafer

OTUS and the golden age of political reporting

By Jack Shafer
December 24, 2011

Just what the country needed: Another political Web site.

At the beginning of the week, ABC News launched OTUS, its political news supermarket with its top political reporters (Jake Tapper, Jonathan Karl, Amy Walter, and George Stephanopoulos) hunkering on the site’s home page. OTUS threatens to dice, grind, sieve, and aerosol the complex business of campaigns and the affairs of the state into inhalable powder.

As Tapper says in this promo, OTUS (short for of the United States as in, POTUS, president of the United States, or SCOTUS, supreme court of the United States) is all about the “power moves, the mini-dramas, the scheming” in politics. Tapper promises that OTUS will flag both the “urgent and the ridiculous,” offer games, display correspondents’ Twitter feeds, and create a stock market-style ticker that assesses the rising and falling worth of candidates with social media.

ABC News has expanded its Web efforts at what is obviously a late date. SalonSlateTalking Points MemoYahoo PoliticsPoliticoRealClearPoliticsRed StateHuffington Post PoliticsFiveThirtyEightMother JonesNational Review OnlineDaily BeastDaily CallerRoll CallThe HillCNN Politics, NBC’s First Read, Time ‘s SwamplandNational Journal, specialty sections at the Washington Post, the New York TimesNew York magazine, the Associated PressBloomberg News, and Reuters, as well as numerous other sites already cover the beat, and cover it well.

That ABC News would join the specialists speaks to both the audience’s insatiable appetite for political news and the network’s confidence that nobody owns this market. It’s a good call: Such is the Web audience’s fickleness, the ease with which they can skip pages, that nobody can own the market for news anymore. They can’t even rent it. News organizations can’t own their journalistic stars the way they used to, either. In the old days, the only place for a reporter or editor at a top-tier newspaper or magazine to migrate was another top-tier newspaper or magazine, or maybe a TV network, or maybe a career in books. But not anymore. Reporters now move from the New York Times to the Huffington Post with such regularity that the MTA is thinking of digging a special subway line to accommodate them.

Not to oversell the current scene, but the proliferation of political news sites—and my apologies to those I didn’t name—means we’re living in a bit of a golden age of political reporting. At least when it comes to national politics and national government, there have never been more reporters competing to break news. Not everything on the menu tastes great, but there’s no denying it’s a feast.

If the winners are readers, the losers are the Times, the Post, and the evening news broadcasts, which have lost their quasi-monopoly power over political coverage, and especially the print versions of the newsweeklies, which specialized for so many decades at giving the quanta of political news a narrative context. Ned Martel, who covers politics for the Post, says it wasn’t that long ago that how much you knew about Washington was measured by how many pages in the last issue of the print version National Journal you’d turned. Also taking a hit has been the political press; The New Republic, which went from weekly to fortnightly in 2007, in part because they didn’t have the money to sustain a weekly any more and in part because weekly was no longer frequent enough to stay on top of politics. The job of wrapping politics into comprehensive narratives now belongs to the monthlies like Vanity Fair and the Atlantic or books like Game Change and Renegade.

Other winners include the cable news chat shows and the Sunday morning programs, which gorge on the baitball of Web news like hungry yellowfin tuna. The cycle is completed when the Web news hounds attack the baitbail formed by the chat show chat, and the chat shows eventually dine, somewhat cannibalistically, on the remains.

For political journalists, this is the best of all possible worlds. They’ve gained new leverage over their editors, who in the green-eyeshade days of journalism could use their power of the limited number of column-inches available in print to cut and otherwise simplify their stories. Now, with there being no shortage of space to fill, the writer calls the shots and the editor, fearful that he’ll get the blame if he’s beaten by the competition, is more likely to approve stories he might once have dismissed as too technical, too inside baseball, and too complicated for a news outlet. (“Save it for your book, kid.”)

Thus liberated, the political journalist can write at wire-service speed, even availing himself to tiny microbursts of reporting, while dumping many of the conventions that make wire reporters miserable—such as the inverted news pyramid that puts the most important news at the top so that distant newspaper editors can cut two, three, four, or five paragraphs at the bottom to make it fit their pages.

The newly liberated political journalist need no longer dumb down his story so that everybody can understand it. He can point to explanatory information with a link or skip it all together, figuring that anybody who is reading him already knows what the Federal Reserve Bank is and what it does. (You laugh, but I recall Washington Post stories from the past that paused to define “pinata” and “slam dunk” when it used those phrases metaphorically!) As victors over their beaten-down editors, political writers can now insert humor, opinion, history lesson, minutiae, and policy wonkery in their pieces without having to justify the digressions and elaborations. (Of course, another part of the new culture can be, depending on the outlet, lower salaries and reduced job security. But that’s my problem and that of my colleagues, not yours.)

Not that long ago, Ben Bagdikian was publishing the seventh edition of his book-length argument, The Media Monopoly. Bagdikian’s neverending gripe was that the news business was consolidating into fewer and fewer voices, and that government action was needed to break up newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters. We don’t hear much of that talk anymore–you’re more likely to hear people complaining about too much political news. The current state of our political press ain’t perfect, but when the exemplar of the new order is Ezra Klein and not Joe Klein, how bad can it be?

Welcome, OTUS, you goofy-named little bastard. I hope you have a good 2012.

******

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Comments
8 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

While all this choice and diversity may seem important, we should pause to remember that with both political parties controlled by large corporations and the super-rich (for those who distinguish between the two) the political process is becoming more and more irrelevant for most people. Nobody really cares anymore about the maneuverings and posturings of the Democrats and the Republicans. Either way, the People get screwed and have no voice.

Posted by scarr34 | Report as abusive
 

@scarr34,

I sometime wonder where you OWS types originate. It’s obvious you are not nor do you represent “99%”. At most you represent 20%, the “hard-core” dissatisfied, unmotivated, unemployed, unemployable that want $20+/hr. for jobs that anyone not mentally challenged can learn in two weeks or less.

“the People” are NOT getting “screwed”. There is a chicken (or more) in every pot and one or more cars in every garage (that aren’t so full of possessions that there’s no room for a car).

Look around today. America is at the malls, spending like crazy! They don’t have that eyes-down furtive look that was once common in the Soviet Union and similar totalitarian countries. They’re not skinny from too little food…they’re FAT! In this country the poor DRIVE!

But keep smoking what you’re smoking. There’s probably never going to be a job your kind would like.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

Hey Sheepman…I hate to break it to ya, but I’ve been full-time employed for the last 35 years. Not only that, my income is in the top 5 to 10 percent of wage earners.

I don’t know what wacky parallel universe you live in, but the signs of economic deterioration are all around us. I don’t think either political party is willing to address the issues affecting most Americans. I used to vote Republican because I was a law-abiding gun owner, but I don’t think they really care about it. They just like the Democrats to take the heat on gun control. When business types talk about “worker empowerment” they don’t mean gun ownership. Armed peasants scare the hell out of them. As we used to say back in the 60s…if voting could change the system, it would be illegal.

By the way, I haven’t blown any weed in decades. Nowadays, my recreational drug of choice is alcohol. You should try it. It might help you relax.

Posted by scarr34 | Report as abusive
 

Congratulations on reaching maturity, in age at least.

The wording of your original rant was what led me to my incorrect conclusions in the first and last paragraph. Interesting, that your “reply” ignored the fact that you’re still wrong twice in that rant. Not good for the credibility.

(1) OWS shows that anyone that wants a “voice” has one. It also reaffirmed that voices with nothing to say are increasingly annoying and progressively ignored. (2) I earlier explained why the average American isn’t getting (economically) screwed”.

Neither the “super rich” nor those who live on government checks can unilaterally decide what kind of society we will have (or can afford). Each have to compete for the “hearts and minds” of the other voters, and it’s amazing how quickly and thoroughly citizen interests blend in the significant part of the “bell curve”.

That’s why the “course” of both Democrat and Republican parties are about as consistent in direction and progress as a bicycle ridden by a drunk.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

One of the Sheep. It is quite a fitting name for one that refuses to open their eyes. Maybe you’ll listen to a Senator since you trust your polital leaders so much. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPQgjkTRR RI&feature=socblog_ti
Bernie Sanders seems to be one of the few politations that puts his concern of democracy over his bank account.

Posted by Mazer | Report as abusive
 

@Mazer,

Precisely what led you to the incorrect conclusion that I trust “my political leaders” at all?

Democracy requires responsible and informed choices by a majority. Unfortunately seldom are today’s voters informed and few are wild about the responsibility thing either, even though their choices have consequences, both intended and unintended.

While perfection is a worthy goal, it is an exceedingly poor expectation that delivers only dissatisfaction and disappointment. America today is far from perfect, but it’s far and away the best of the large societies in that a majority of it’s citizens are NOT victims of “the system”.

Those with their heads in the sand are largely the loud and shrill voices that would toss all that we have with no proven plan or strategy. These are NOT leaders and they have NOTHING of substance or merit to offer.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

Yes I agree Democracy requires responsible and informed choices by a majority but how can that happen if corporations can control the voice though the media and in our government. Wouldn’t a more worthy pursuit be spreading truth and compassion for your fellow man rather then becoming annoyied with the voice of the ignored in our society? If the rich can be allowed to game the system without a proper counterweight to power that comes with wealth our Democracy will continue to head toward that Soviet with the furitive down cast eyes that you so describe. No our poor are not truely poor if you compare them with those in the world that don’t even have refrideration but that doesn’t mean the rich can’t still exert dominion with their weath for the purpose to increase it over the backs of those without power. In order to have a proper conversation about Democracy we must seperate the defination of a just society with a equal one.

Posted by Mazer | Report as abusive
 

@Mazer,

The “…voice though the media and in our government…” that corporations “can control” is but a tiny contemporary fraction of the decision-making ability of the voting age+ American citizen.

We each have a unique perspective developed over time from our “formal education” (which varies in quality and completeness with geography and neighborhood affluence), those who supervise our upbringing (whose abilities, interest and personal perspectives all differ), and our “peers” (whose abilities, interest and personal perspectives all differ). By the time our ears and brain receive a “message”, most of our reaction to same is pre-programmed in a manner no government nor corporation can ever control.

Typically those inclined to deem the most “…worthy pursuit be spreading truth and compassion for your fellow man…” become social workers, charity workers or members of the clergy. There is a reason society chooses to not hear “…the voice of the ignored”. In a time when there is much competition for our attention, why “grant mental audience” to those who can not or will not engage life on a successfully competitive level?

Our society already has programs to help those who cannot help themselves, like the autistic, etc. Why should Americans otherwise indulge those who consciously choose to accept that they “can’t” make their own way in life. They will always be “right” and look to the productive for a free ride. I don’t regard that as a “right” to be encouraged.

No one of voting age in America is “without power” except those who consciously do not exercise that power. For them, there should be no sympathy. By law, they must exist live under “the system” as results from the choices of a majority of the rest at the ballot box. America’s elections, by and large today, are open and honest by any reasonable measure.

Outside of an academic setting, any “…proper conversation about Democracy…” is limited to past experience and present reality. If you believe our “equal society” is not “just” I would agree.

Is there room for improvement? Sure! What is “the answer”? To involve one’s self anywhere and everywhere the opportunity presents to make THIS world a better place for OUR having existed.

It is NOT to complain because perfection has yet to be achieved. Man will NEVER achieve perfection in anything because his own nature is forever in conflict with his more noble aspirations.

Be properly aware and grateful for the incredible progress in the American standard of living in the last hundred years. Try to understand how and why that occurred, and focus your efforts to further improve that on the world of today; because the world of yesterday is not coming back.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

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