Don't blame Twitter for bad campaign reporting

A few years ago, my mentor and a great journalist, Bob Stoldal, told me he worried that I was doing so much that he got to wondering, “When do you have time to think?”

It was, as usual, the right question. And it came to mind as I finished reading Peter Hamby’s impressive and provocative study of campaign reporting, “Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus? Searching for a better way to cover a campaign.” The study, which can be read here, was done for Harvards’s JFK School.

Hamby, an excellent CNN political reporter, essentially writes about how presidential campaign journalists, especially embeds, used their time, with a specific focus on how they are twittering away the moments that make up a dull day (apologies, Pink Floyd) – and there are plenty of those during a campaign. Part of the premise was that these reporters generally are too young, too inexperienced and, occasionally, too frivolous, thus debasing themselves, the candidates and The Great Debate.

Part of that, I think, is right, but some of it is unfair to most of these reporters, many of whom I have met and many of whom I thought were smart, savvy and dedicated, as their work also demonstrated. But Hamby’s paper is about much more than the superficiality of campaigns, exemplified by Twitter’s dominance of the discourse.

Through many interviews since the election – he had time to think, the lucky fellow – Hamby meditates on the behavior toward the media by the Mitt Romney campaign (it bordered on paranoiac hostility) and recommends ways to improve what journalists do during presidential cycles, which, like the 24/7 world of journalism, are never-ending.

He is right about so many of these – understanding polling better, considering the lessons of down-ballot races, tracking the messages through media buys.  He also raises some issues that do not hew to the usual Columbia Journalism Review critiques.

For instance, process stories can matter and be revealing of character and motivations. And the horse race is important, especially if you can figure out who is feeding the horse and why he or she is running toward or away from the crowd.

There’s a lot in those 95 pages, with many fine journalists interviewed and adding heft to Hamby’s research. Read it; digest it; think about it.

I did. And there are two major points I took away from the paper, both of which deserve fuller explication.

The first involves Twitter, which is lambasted by many veteran political reporters as trivializing coverage. It can; but it most often does not.

Twitter, which I freely acknowledge I use a lot (sometimes too much) to disseminate information, analysis and snark, is what the clattering AP news machines used to be – only faster and fresher. It is a news feed scrolling down your computer screen, an invaluable source of information for anyone covering politics. Anyone who denies this or doesn’t get this should not be covering campaigns, presidential or otherwise.

Many of the political scribes who utilize Twitter realize, though, that it is hardly the ONLY outlet. Indeed, you can only do so much in 140 characters. But many of the reporters mentioned in Hamby’s paper – The New York Times’ Ashley Parker and Jonathan Martin, POLITICO’s Maggie Haberman, Alex Burns and Reid Epstein, Slate’s Dave Weigel and others – are superb journalists who use Twitter to varying degrees.

For instance, Weigel is absolutely brutal and often hilarious on Twitter. But anyone who reads his pieces on Slate knows he is a hard working, historically knowledgeable and smart-writing journalist. He thinks -- a lot.

Weigel knows that Twitter is but one part of his job, one venue among many. And they can all work together. I use Twitter, an email newsletter, a blog and a television show, all for different purposes. But they all interact to emphasize, reinforce and amplify.

The complaints that campaign reporters such as Parker were too frivolous or snarky in their Tweets, with Romney Campaign Central whining during and after the campaign, are just silly. Ever read an Ashley Parker piece? She is a first-rate writer and reporter. So what if she uses Twitter to vent once in awhile. Really? This is what we are worried about?

Twitter also can be used to live-Tweet events so that those who are not there – both reporters and regular folks – can “see” what is happening in real time. This is an invaluable service, if used correctly.

Twitter is not the problem. Nor is it the solution. But no one – and Hamby, too, gets how useful it can be – can ignore it.

The other issue that Hamby illuminates, with help from other journalists, is just how walled off presidential candidates are becoming from the media. I understand the fear from campaigns that inexperienced reporters especially, will play gotcha, that they will ask silly questions just so they can make the candidate look foolish.

This is not just a disservice to the public but to the candidate, who will engender hostility from the media (reporters are human beings, too, and will get frustrated) and fail to be humanized.

“We are just isolated from these folks,” Timesman Martin told Hamby. “The layers and layers of staff, and the caution, is something that I think is detrimental to the process because we just don’t have the chance to see who these folks are as individuals, as humans. I think it’s just a shame.”

This is spot-on. And it’s not just happening at the presidential level.

Here in Nevada, I have heard from other journalists, and have occasionally experienced, an unusual, unprecedented and counterproductive media strategy from the two most prominent Republican elected officials in Nevada -- Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller. Both men have press secretaries who, at times, simply will not return emails, ignoring queries from the Fourth Estate. No two high-level politicians have ever taken such an approach in the 27 years I have covered politics here.

It may be a successful strategy in the short run. But in the long run, it will cost any elected official at critical times,  just as it did Romney. The media is a fickle beast and can behave in beastly ways. But most political reporters are not liberal plants out to destroy Republicans. They are just looking for a story, whatever it is and whomever it affects.

The biggest problem during campaigns is it is so easy to become immersed in the hurly burly that you don’t have time to sit back and survey the scene because you are IN the scene. Whether you are covering Mitt Romney or Harry Reid, you need to have time to, as Stoldal told me, think about what you have gathered.

Then send a tweet, pen a blog post or write an involved story. Better yet, do all three.