Burying insider political journalism

Credit: White House Photo by Benjamin Applebaum

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith recently wrote a thoughtful, searching essay about what he sees as the decline of the insider style of political journalism that he helped popularize in the 2000s.

According to Smith, micro-scoop-driven politics coverage that frames politics as sport, focuses on politicians’ personalities and tactics, and lacks a clear moral sensibility is no longer in vogue. In fact, he argues, “Americans of all political stripes now actually hate it,” because the old style is “painfully inadequate for the movement politics of a new era, with higher stakes, higher passions, and far wider interest.”

Scores of reporters have been heaping praise on Smith for re-evaluating the value of the genre of journalism that he helped make dominant from his blogging perch at Politico during the Obama era. But I believe his analysis is off the mark in two major ways: I don’t think the insider style is on the brink of demise, and I think that there needs to be a deeper reckoning with its shortcomings.

The insider style is as big as ever

First, I am skeptical of Smith’s observation that insider journalism is widely disliked or even declining sharply in popularity.

Politico, the publication which typifies the insider style, is continuing to thrive as a publication and drive the conversation in political media. Its iconic morning newsletter is still called Playbook, it still strives to put the reader in the mindset of a campaign operator or a lawmaker’s communications director, and it’s still widely read.

And Politico’s model appears replicable in the Trump era. In January 2017 a few Politico alums founded Axios, which in many ways is simply Politico on speed. It delivers microscopic scoops at a breakneck pace, and its core speciality is palace intrigue. But it hasn’t been a flop — in fact it has swiftly become a major player in the media world. It’s audience growth exceeded its own expectations, it’s ramping up hiring dramatically, and it raised $20 million in venture capital last fall.

I agree with Smith that more overtly politicized publications on the left and right appear to have risen in prominence and popularity in the past two years, but I think the insider style is still far and away the most dominant mode of political journalism in the nation.

That’s because the insider style hasn’t faded as much as it has evolved: it’s no longer about the gamesmanship of Democrats against Republicans — it’s about the spectacle of Trump TV. Hyper-incremental reporting is still a common practice, but it’s about Trump’s psyche and what his aides are thinking and saying. Coverage of tactics and jockeying for power is still a common practice, but it’s about Trump’s dealings with lawmakers and foreign governments — and his own administration. The sports metaphor isn’t as apt anymore; we’re now gawking at reality TV. But fundamentally, there is still an implicit conceit of politics as a must-watch showAnd it should come as no surprise that many of the most talked-about articles are being written up at the New York Times and the Washington Post by the dozens of Politico alums that have joined them over the past several years.

Smith suggests that the decline of the insider style means a move away from brazen amorality in reportage. I think there’s truth to that. In the new insider style, there is typically a more pronounced sense of the reporter trying to hold the politician — that is, Trump — accountable. But then the question is, to what standards? I’d say the new accountability mostly comes down to: a) pointing out blatant falsehoods and b) pointing out how Trump departs from established norms through his rhetoric or policy choices. Those are useful practices, but I think they fall short of Smith’s ideal of journalism as “often telling stories with a clear right and wrong.”

The norm fixation among political journalists is no guarantor of more ethical behavior. Consider how the insider style media is aghast every time Trump says something mean about Justin Trudeau but grows giddy when Trump fires missiles at Syria. The former is a break from tradition but not particularly consequential, while the latter is considered perfectly presidential but could’ve been the opening salvo of another war.

It is true as Smith points out that political media is becoming more oriented toward movement politics — both on the right and the left — and that there’s been some fantastic coverage of policy. But the reality is that Trump TV is the main show. The New York Times will swarm any tale of Trump chaos but was caught completely off guard by the rise of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There’s still a lot of work to do.

The insider style isn’t old. It’s wrong.

My second point of disagreement with Smith is regarding the reason for the inadequacy of the insider style. At many points in his essay, Smith implies that it is obsolete because we’ve moved into a time of crisis with “higher stakes.” I think that the insider style was always misguided, and that the Trump era is laying bare its inherent problems.

Smith argues that the insider style was more suited for a time of broad bipartisan consensus on free markets, war, immigration and so on during the 90s and aughts. Now bigger divides in political life demands a kind of journalism that can properly chronicle those divides — and their concrete implications for society and the world.

Smith also suggests that the insider style isn’t the right fit for a political crisis. He argues that during a crisis everybody, not just political junkies, wants to know about what’s going on in government. In such urgent and unusual times, it’s important to write in a more accessible style and to broaden coverage beyond who’s up and who’s down. “In a normal country, nobody cares about politics,” Smith writes.

I … don’t think this goes deep enough. The insider style might feel less irresponsible during times of stability and bipartisan consensus, but that doesn’t mean it was a wise or ethical approach back then. As Smith himself briefly notes, both parties happily banded together for the moral catastrophes of the Iraq War and mass incarceration. And of course there are plenty of other huge misdeeds that both parties agreed on during what were considered good times — deregulation that produced the financial crisis, inaction to prevent ecological catastrophe, the evisceration of welfare, the abandonment of worker power as inequality skyrocketed to Gilded Age levels, the list could go on forever. The point is that journalists should be skeptics who buck the conventional wisdom of the political class, not traffic in it. They should do this on principle, because the good times are only good for select communities, and the stakes are never low for those who lack power. And they should also do it because that’s how you prevent a crisis. 

If you want to serve the public, you don’t wait until an issue threatens to destabilize the country. You tackle the crisis as it brews. But the insider style blinds us to that kind of anticipation. Its fixation on the psychodrama of politics obscures policy realities, moral reckoning, citizen experience, grassroots mobilization.  We should not have “nostalgia” for a time when the old insider style pervaded, but regret that it distracted us from some of the very issues that helped Trump take the White House.

Lastly, I am struck by Smith’s comment that in normal countries “nobody cares about politics.” I have to ask: what is a normal country? I certainly have never encountered one. Spend 10 minutes in a busy pub or a cafe anywhere in the world and it’s almost impossible to avoid overhearing some talk of politics. 

Sure, I have met people in the US and abroad who don’t read the news everyday and can’t name many people in government. But I have rarely come across people who don’t think or talk about their rent rising, the quality of their tap water, how hard it is to live comfortably on their paycheck, the fact that they can’t take time off to take care of their new-born child, what the new people in the neighborhood look like, whether they can get married, the new country their government is bombing. And how hard it is to have a say in any of itThat’s all politics. Only someone who still believes in the insider style would believe otherwise.

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