Three political reporters discussed the perils of predicting presidential primaries, the humor of filing stories in a men's locker room and the difficulties campaigns face in managing the message in the Internet era featuring the likes of "Obama Girl" during a panel at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst on March 26. LAUNCH GOOGLE VIDEO
Watch the streaming video (about 82 minutes), introduced by Journalism Program lecturer Barbara J. Roche. To launch the video, click on the left carat on the bar below the captured image.
The panel -- "Campaign 2008: An Endless Cycle?" -- featured Jill Lawrence, USA Today national political correspondent; mark Stencel; deputy publisher of Governing magazine; and Mary Carey political reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, in Northampton, Mass. Steve Fox, UMass Journalism Professor and a former editor of washingtonpost.com.
Lawrence is now covering her sixth presidential campaign as she writes for the USA Today print edition, as well as co-writes a blog called "On Politics" on the newspaper's Web site. In 2004 the Columbia Journalism Review named her one the 10 top reporters on the campaign trail. As the 2008 presidential elections drag on, Lawrence explained that she is now the "Hilary Clinton deathwatch reporter." While many count the New York senator out of the race leading up to major contests, she continues to win primaries that keep her deadlocked in a tight Democratic race with Illinois U.S. Sen. Barack Obama -- hence the need for a "deathwatch."
Prior to the crucial Texas primary on March 4, Lawrence was in Austin, Texas, covering the Clinton campaign with many other distinguished journalists. She explained the difficulties of blogging as well as meeting deadlines for the print edition, noting that "the blog is an interesting way to cover a campaign" because of the nature of the 24-hour news cycle on the Internet and that it's like a "fire hose" of information -"you have to know when to shut it off."
Lawrence and some other members of the press' time on the campaign trail became even more interesting leading up to March 4, as the Clinton campaign gave them a men's locker room disguised as a press room to work in. She told the story of how she spent hours writing on tables that were set up right next to men's urinals in an Austin Community Center, all the while on a deadline. The actual scene can be viewed HERE in a video on the Washington Post's blog. Lawrence and her colleagues were able to make light of the situation by making up funny lines like, "Clinton campaign stalls," "yellow journalism," and "Clinton campaign in the toilet."
The telling of this less-then-glamorous anecdote centered on a central theme that the panel spoke of in regards to presidential elections, especially the current one: they are unpredictable. Journalists "get in to trouble when making predictions. We're all looking at the same tea leaves," said Lawrence. From believing that now-Republican nominee John McCain was virtually out of the race last summer, to constantly reporting on polls that didn't end up reflecting actual primary results (just look at the New Hampshire primary), the media has had clear troubles in covering the 2008 election. "We've been thwarted many times this year," said Lawrence.
Stencel even joked that he's refrained (upon his wife's request) from making any predictions about the results of the election after predicting last year that Sen. Clinton wouldn't even run. Stencel, who previously oversaw coverage of the 1998 president election on the Washington Post's Web site, as well as worked as a Senior editor for PoliticsNow, one of the first election-year Web site's online in 1996. Stencel also spoke of the 24-hour news cycle on the Internet and what it means for election coverage, stating that "there is no escaping it... everybody is in the breaking news business now."
He evidenced this fact by discussing the 2004 media hype surrounding who was going to be Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry's running mate -- which was broken not by any major news organization, but by someone who posted on the US Aviation message board that he had seen Kerry/Edwards stickers being put on Kerry's plane in it's hangar. This happened hours before any one else broke the story that Senator John Edwards was the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee.
Besides highlighting the difficulties that political reporters (and all reporters, for that matter) face in trying to be first as well as accurate, Stencel also discussed the problems that campaigns face in dealing with the Internet. He explained that "campaigns live by their message," and that they have always worked extremely hard to control that message. However, "in a world of blogs and YouTube, that becomes impossible" and the successful campaigns become the one's that let go of some of that control and use the Internet to their advantage, such as the 2004 Howard Dean campaign and the Obama campaign.
A debate referree needed?
A "debate referee" of sorts is Stencel's solution to dealing with the flow of information during election periods. "There is an opportunity for the press to help readers, visitors, and listeners to handle the 'fire hose' of information." He cited Web sites like politifact.com and Christian Science Monitor's Patchwork Nation, for doing just that.
Mary Carey, a part-time faculty member in the UMass Journalism program, weighed in with the local perspective of covering presidential elections, such as attending campaign rallies and feeling the "magic" and "aura" of a candidate. Carey, who has covered several elections, mentioned the "national narrative" that is created as to what everyone believes the final outcome of the election will be - a narrative that is always fluctuating as it's being played out in the media.
This constantly-changing "national narrative" that continues to catch journalists off-guard during the 2008 Presidential elections is what ultimately creates the "endless cycle" and brings the media into what Steve Fox described as "uncharted territory." To consistently write new stories as many news organizations bring in analysts to discuss the state of the campaigns until something else arises is the biggest problem facing reporters in late-March, especially those working online.
After commending the USA Today's recent coverage of the candidate's healthcare plans in their print edition, Stencel said, "the challenge for us is measuring ourselves against the reaction of news junkies, and that's a shrinking category," referring to the ways in which news organizations present information. Carey also noted that it is easy to predict which stories will get the most comments - and it's not something like the candidates healthcare plans.
"It is this endless treadmill to chase the narrative," explained Stencel.
Following questions from the audience, Fox asked panelists to give advice to any aspiring journalists in the room, as well as give their predictions on the 2008 election.
Stencel declined to give his prediction, as mentioned earlier, but he did tell students in the room that "internships are crucial." Lawrence said that she believes the Democratic race will end long before the convention, to keep an eye on the Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Indiana primaries, and that she believes that the Democrats will have their nominee by the end of the 1st week in June. But once again, these are all just predictions in what Lawrence still conceded is an unpredictable race. Carey admitted, "I've been surprised every time." In the end, we're all just going to have to wait and see what happens - but there is no doubt that it will continue to be both riveting and dramatic for all to watch, listen to, read about, and even write about.
Reported by: Ashley Coulombe Media Giraffe Project intern