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The Harris-VandeHei Interview Sells Even Politico Short

- June 24, 2013

Following up on David’s post, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the New Republic interview with Politico co-founders John Harris and Jim VandeHei.  What struck me about this interview was that Harris and VandeHei seemed to acknowledge a role that some in the news media do not: that of participant, not observer.  Here is Harris’s response to TNR’s Isaac Chotiner:

IC: You say you “cover” Washington. Does Politico consider itself merely an observer of Washington or a participant?

JH: If you look at Washington as an ecosystem, we obviously play a role in that ecosystem. The media generally plays a role.

But then in nearly the very next breath, Harris and VandeHei understate the implications of what it means for the media to be a participant in the political ecosystem.

IC: If Washington, on a given day, is caught up in total nonsense, is there real value in covering total nonsense? If you give nonsense a microphone, that might lead to more nonsense. If you are a politician and you get covered for saying outrageous things, there is some incentive to say more outrageous things.

JVH: No doubt.

JH: There is also the chance that someone will call you a buffoon.

JVH: For people who have lost faith in politics, the market has corrected. If you think about people who became the Freak Show, the bombastic celebrities on the right—Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, Allen West, Michele Bachmann—they all had their rise, they all got their fame, and they all flamed out because voters rejected them.

What VandeHei seems to suggest is that, no matter if Politico gets caught up in promoting “total nonsense” or “the Freak Show,” everything will work out because “the market” (or maybe “voters”?) will correct things.  I think this is wrong.  There is no invisible hand here.  If the market corrects itself, it’s because the media does the correcting.

Herman Cain will illustrate this point.  As Lynn Vavreck and I show in this chapter of The Gamble, Cain rose to fame precisely because he got media attention after he won the non-binding and largely irrelevant Florida straw poll.  His victory also hastened Rick Perry’s exit well before Perry said “oops” and all of that.  This is because news outlets framed Cain’s “win” as Perry’s “defeat.”  “Cain Upsets Perry at Florida Straw Poll,” declared USA Today. “Cain Upsets Perry in Florida Republican Straw Poll,” declared Reuters. “Herman Cain Upsets Gov. Rick Perry to Win Florida GOP Straw Poll,” declared Fox News.  This is how “narratives” — which media outlets like Politico report on as if they are disembodied tales — are actually created by these same media outlets. That’s not me on my “high horse,” to quote Harris on Nate Silver.   I’m not being critical.  I’m just stating an empirical fact.  Narratives about politics are mostly written by the people who, well, write professionally about politics.

Lynn and I also provide some statistical confirmation of what happened to Cain.  That is, we do what VandeHei might call “trying to use numbers to prove stuff.”  We show that more prevalent and favorable news coverage appeared to drive Cain’s poll numbers (although the reverse was not true).

So what happened then?  How did the “market” correct itself?  It wasn’t because of what voters did.  It was because of what the media did.  Indeed, it was — at least in part — because of what Politico did:

During Herman Cain’s tenure as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain, ultimately leaving their jobs at the trade group, multiple sources confirm to Politico.

And we know how the rest of the story goes.  So the end of Cain’s campaign was not brought about by “the market” or by voters.  Voters needed new information to “correct.”  Who provided the information?  Journalists doing their job and vetting the candidates.  VandeHei doesn’t appear to see this or believe this, even when his own publication was doing the work.

This is one reason why it surprised me that Harris and VandeHei were snarky about investigative reporting like the New York Times’ series on corruption at the Long Island Railroad, and ultimately articulated an emaciated conception of newsworthiness as simply what is “interesting.”  VandeHei:

We have an obligation to be interesting. We don’t think of ourselves as the electric company or the water company: “Well, we have a responsibility …” That was a mindset in a previous generation of journalists.
It doesn’t seem to me that even Politico operates exclusively under that belief.  Their Cain reporting managed to be both interesting (“Ooh, sex scandal!”) and responsible at the same time (because I believe that knowing whether someone settled suits for sexual harassment is important information when that person wants to be president).
If Harris and VandeHei believed that “market corrections” were at least partially their responsibility, they might put “responsible” more at the heart of their news-gathering and reporting.  I would find a “responsible Politico” even more worth reading.
P.S. There was also this small, but fun, moment in the interview: apropos of a question about the contretemps between Nate Silver and some Politico reporters (mainly Dylan Byers) in the fall of 2012, John Harris avers that he didn’t read 538 during the election.  Silver quickly noted that Harris had listed 538 as one of his favorite blogs as of November 2010.  Alas, this doesn’t bode well for The Monkey Cage, since we were on that list too.  Former Politico reporter Ben Smith suggested that he may actually have written that list for Harris.  Our thanks to Smith, in that case!