Political Journalism: Paradox?

A Farewell Guide to Political Journalism

Lessons gleaned from 30 years of covering American politics—from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump

A reporter raises his hand during a White House press briefing. Carlos Barria / R
I left political journalism once before—to help launch a social media site designed to engage political influencers in civil conversation. It failed (one critic called it “the idiotic Hotsoup.com”), but among the many lessons I took away from the experience was one about journalism.

In a meeting just before the site launched, my business partners—six of the smartest, most successful political consultants in Washington—debated which reporter would be given an interview announcing our venture.

I mentioned a particular journalist known to be an easy mark inside the White Houses of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Afraid of confrontation, eager to please, and lazy, this reporter printed whatever minor bits of news and color aides fed him, without skepticism or criticism. I didn’t respect the guy. Nor did most other reporters forced to compete against a patsy who benefited from a policy of mutual-assured promotion.

“He’ll gobble up what we feed him,” I told my partners.

One groaned. Another winced and said, “Yes, but nobody will buy it. Nobody respects him. They’ll know it’s just a press release.”

Until that moment, I assumed the people we covered in politics valued pushover journalists. I thought this particular reporter got ahead by going along. That might be true on the small stories, but not for the stuff that matters.

One of my partners asked about a Washington Post political correspondent known for his tough, insightful coverage. “You think Dan Balz would buy this?”

“I don’t know,” said another. “But if Balz loves Hotsoup, we’re golden. If he hates it, we’re toast.”

Balz never did write about the project, and we were toast. But I left the meeting knowing that if I ever returned to journalism, I didn’t want to be taken for granted liked the first reporter. I wanted to inspire in my sources what Balz had earned from my partners—respect and fear.

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8 thoughts on “Political Journalism: Paradox?

    • Political journalism, of all the jobs in journalism, is one of the most challenging for the journalist. They can me mistrusted by those they write about and by their own employers. They’re open to being influenced from many sides. The most difficult task is staying true to one’s mission and keeping one’s job.

      • Nothing’s impossible. I think the biggest problem a political correspondent would have today is ‘joining the club.’ In journalism, ‘pol corrs’ act and behave like they’re a special elite, their eyes and ears on the reins of power and those who wield it. Getting there used be a long apprenticeship. However, if you know politicians, they need publicity. If you know people who need to influence change through politics, they need publicity. All of these avenues can lead you to a story of corruption, abuse of power, the wrongful allocation of public resources etc. Write that story in a blog and then make sure it gets read by the right people. That’s another route.
        On another note, have you had a chance to read the first draft of the ‘shadow’ story? I’ve added a further 500 words to it and feel it is finished now. Last night Fijay and I engaged in a lengthy discussion about it, unfortunately in the comments section of someone else’s blog post. Fijay has been having terrible tech problems but I feel there’s a measure of technophobe involved, too.

      • Unfortunately, I do not know any politicians or anyone even vaguely connected to that sphere – it shall remain something of a pipe dream, for now at least.
        Yes – I have read the ‘Shadow’ story and replied to your email. If you have an updated version, please do send it along and I shall get eyes on it just as soon as I can. It really is quite brilliant and I enjoyed it very much indeed – as you will see from my email!

  1. Thank you for sharing this one Dermott.
    Over the years I have lost faith in the British press (I might be over-reacting). This article re-ignited a hope that there are journalists out there who are fighting the good fight; it’s just trying to find them.
    Thanks again.

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