In the 2012 presidential campaign, a handful of media outlets deployed “fact-checking” divisions which reported the lies and distortions of the candidates. Some commentators have argued that these truth-squads exposed the inadequacy of standard print and broadcast coverage, much of which seems more like entertainment than news. This forum will examine the changing role of the political media in the U.S. Is our political journalism serving democratic and civic ideals? What do emerging technologies and the proliferation of news sources mean for the future?
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues for TheAtlantic.com and the magazine. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.
Mark McKinnon is a senior advisor of Hill & Knowlton Strategies, an international communications consultancy, a weekly columnist for The Daily Beast and The London Telegraph, and is a co-founder of the bipartisan group No Labels. As a political advisor, he has worked for many causes, companies and candidates including former President George W. Bush, 2008 Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, late former Texas Governor Ann Richards and Congressman Charlie Wilson.
Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti
Moderator Seth Mnookin, co-director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, opened the forum by asking panelist Mark McKinnon, best known for his work as a political and communications consultant, about his relationship with country music superstar Kris Kristofferson.
Although he is best known for his work with Republican presidential candidates George W. Bush and John McCain, McKinnon began his career working for Texas’s Democratic governors Mark White (1983-1987) and Ann Richards (1991-1995). In Texas at that time, recalled McKinnon, the Republican Party wasn’t a major player. “There were the Democratic party and the conservative Democratic party,” he said, noting how quickly Texas’s political landscape shifted in favor of Republicans over the past few decades.
Prior to getting involved in politics, McKinnon confessed, he’d set his sights on a music career. After hearing—and liking—McKinnon’s band, Kristofferson tried to help them break into the music industry. Over the course of several years, Kristofferson became a mentor to McKinnon, even letting him stay in his Nashville apartment. After a few years trying to make it in music, McKinnon realized he was on track to headline small-time hotel lounges, and decided on a career change. He returned to his native Texas and went to school to study journalism. While there, he started to write about politics. After volunteering for a state senate campaign, McKinnon began a career as a political consultant.
In the mid-1990s, McKinnon took a hiatus from government, confessing that he had been “burned out” by the partisan nature of Texas politics. During that time, McKinnon met George W. Bush, then a Texas gubernatorial candidate. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” message appealed to McKinnon, as did his policies on immigration and education reform. When Bush ran for a second term as Texas governor in 1998, McKinnon joined his team. He continued to work for Bush during his presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004.
Mnookin then turned the discussion to panelist Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at The Atlantic. Mnookin asked Coates how he got involved in journalism.
Mnookin then directed the discussion back to McKinnon. Since the end of the Bush administration, you’ve been involved in advocating for more bipartisanship in politics, Mnookin said, but ironically, many people have come to see the Bush years as a particularly partisan time. How do you see Bush’s role in establishing the current partisan political climate?
“Poetry,” was Coates’s surprising answer. As a student at Howard University, Coates aspired to be a poet. After a friend got an internship at the Washington City Paper, Coates sent the editors a sample of his poems, “and somehow that convinced them to hire me.” Although Coates loved to write and had a great deal of intellectual curiosity, he claimed that he was never an outstanding student. But while working at theWashington City Paper, Coates discovered reporting allowed for learning outside the classroom. “Journalism works best when the person executing the journalism is fanatically curious,” he said. A reporter would find a topic that he was interested in, pitch the story, and then, with his editor’s okay, go away to learn more about it. Coates said that when he discovered journalism, he’d discovered exactly what he’d wanted to do—and was thrilled that he was able to get paid for it. At the Washington City Paper, Coates worked closely with editor David Carr, now a New York Times columnist. While Coates was most interested in reporting on music, Carr emphasized politics. As part of Carr’s team, Coates began to do a lot of political reporting.
Bush’s legacy in Texas was one of bipartisanship, said McKinnon. While Bush was governor, he worked closely with the Democratic Lieutenant Governor, who became a mentor to Bush. If you look at some of Bush’s speeches in 1999 and compare them to Obama’s in 2007, McKinnon said, they aren’t that different. Both candidates were talking about solving the problems of partisan politics and changing the tone and culture of Washington.
Both Obama and Bush underestimated the entrenched nature of special interests in Washington, said McKinnon. After their respective elections, both Presidents “hit the wall” in Washington and came up short against practical realities. Furthermore, the fact that Bush won the presidency through a vote recount in Florida “poisoned the well for him from the beginning.” According to McKinnon, many Democrats on Capitol Hill didn’t see Bush as a legitimate president, creating an environment where it was difficult to reach across the aisle. Obama has faced many of the same problems, said McKinnon. There has been a hyper-partisan tone that’s affected both of their presidencies, supported by a splintered news media that caters to niche groups. In this environment, it became harder and harder to govern.
When Coates began writing for The Atlantic in 2008, journalism as a profession was changing. Before the rise of blogs, a reporter had to convince an editor to publish a story before he or she could go out and write it. Blogs tore down that last hurdle between writer and audience, allowing journalists to explore whatever topic interested them at the time. In Coates’s case, that was Obama’s candidacy. The vast majority of journalists covering Obama had a limited understanding of black America’s history and politics, said Coates. Part of the problem, he suggested, was that journalism as a practice tends to be ahistorical. For instance, by the time Obama entered the 2008 presidential race, African Americans were relatively used to seeing black Americans run for president—from Jesse Jackson in the 1980s to the Reverend Al Sharpton in 2004. Meanwhile, the mainstream media was surprised that Hillary Clinton was beating Barack Obama among black Democrats in the party primary. Given the historical context, this made sense to Coates—black Americans had worked hard to gain their right to vote, and they were tactical about using it. They wanted to back a winner and at that time, it seemed that Clinton had the better chance in a general election. An understanding of African American history would have given mainstream journalists a more nuanced understanding when they reported on the Democratic primary.
How has the media’s coverage of presidential candidates changed over time? Mnookin asked. Has it become more restricted?
Coates said that he didn’t fully realize how choreographed the coverage of presidential candidates was when he first began reporting. For instance, at the 2008 Democratic Convention, Michelle Obama’s interactions with press were limited to strictly planned appearances. By contrast, John McCain in 2000 was very open with reporters. His candor, Mnookin recalled, forced the other candidates in the race—especially George W. Bush—to change their behavior, and interact with journalists in more informal settings.
There’s a “dynamic tension” at play here, said McKinnon. McCain “got a ton of media love” in 2000 for being a candid, unscripted guy. That attention “got him up the runway” in a lot of ways. But that sort of relationship between press and politicians is becoming less possible, because there is no longer such a thing as an “off-the-record” moment. Cameras are rolling twenty-four hours a day, and accordingly, campaigns are more concerned about access than ever before because they want to avoid a flub or a “gotcha” moment that might derail a campaign. For instance, McCain’s behavior changed in 2008 when he was the Republican presidential candidate. He started out trying to be open with the press, but his campaign ultimately reined him in because there was a fear that he would go “off message.”
In this media environment, voters become skeptical of what politicians say because they rightly perceive their behavior as highly scripted. Likewise, political advertising is often meaningless, because voters assume they are being lied to. This makes personal authenticity, said McKinnon, even more critical. A moment that hammered home the importance of authenticity for McKinnon was in 2008, when Hillary Clinton choked up just days before the New Hampshire primary. Obama was ahead in the polls, but Clinton ended up winning the primary, because voters read her moment of vulnerability as a real human emotion. “People saw behind the curtain and responded to that,” said McKinnon.
Mnookin asked McKinnon to elaborate on his relationship with Senator John McCain, with whom he had worked during the Republican presidential primary in 2008.
McKinnon said he got to know McCain through his work on campaign finance reform, which McKinnon had always admired. He joined the 2008 campaign in a volunteer capacity when McCain asked for his help. At the same time, “I met Obama and I liked him,” said McKinnon, even though they disagreed politically. McKinnon thought an Obama presidency would be good for the country in some ways, so he told McCain that if Obama won the Democratic primary, he’d resign his post and watch from the sidelines. “It was hard to walk away,” when Obama won the Democratic nomination, McKinnon recalled, but that’s what he did.
“I am a black journalist,” said Coates. He said that he was excited about the possibility of an African American president, and that he was upfront about his enthusiasm in his journalism. I come out of opinion media and we make our biases clear upfront, said Coates.
Coates wrote about the 2008 campaign from a journalist’s perspective, Mnookin noted, asking if he covered it as a “journalist” or as a “black journalist.” Was it possible to write about the historic 2008 campaign in a way that was not impartial, Mnookin asked?
We have access to more information than we’ve ever had in the past, said Mnookin. When it comes to politics, are we being well informed as a public?
That’s a good question, said McKinnon. In the 1980s, campaigns could be “creative” with the truth, but they would never say anything factually wrong or lie directly. As a corrective to campaigns’ “expanding creativity,” a Texas news station came up the idea of a “truth test,” McKinnon recalled. These fact checks initially had a huge impact on how campaigns conducted themselves. Suddenly—and helpfully—McKinnon noted, campaigns began to be more careful in how they characterized things.
Today the pendulum has swung in the other direction, McKinnon argued. People have become inured to truth tests, and in the last Presidential campaign facts were totally distorted. Republican candidate Mitt Romney ran an advertisement about President Obama’s welfare policy that was demonstrably false. Rather than make a corrective turn, the Romney campaign said that they were not going to let the campaign be “dictated by fact checkers.” Essentially, said McKinnon, the campaign said they didn’t care about the truth and kept running the ad. Romney’s campaign wasn’t the only guilty one. An Obama Super PAC advertisement about Romney’s career at Bain Capital also stretched facts, McKinnon said. People believe what they want to believe, Coates added. I’m skeptical how much these ads even matter beyond firing up the base.
McKinnon agreed. “The country has become more partisan,” he said. Added to that, the media has become increasingly partisan or siloed; and opinion news channels such as MSNBC or Fox feed their audiences what they want to hear.
There’s an assumption among journalists that if you provide the public with accurate information, they will make an informed decision, said Coates. It’s difficult to believe that assumption today.
Question & Answer
Rodrigo Davies of the MIT Center for Civic Media asked about the impact of Internet memes on elections. Certain phrases from the presidential debates like “binders full of women” and Sesame Street’s “Big Bird” were picked up, remixed, and propagated by people online, turned into spreadable images and animated gifs, often with a humorous twist. What was the importance of these memes, Davies asked, and did the panelists see the propagation of political jokes online as a shift in the discourse?
Memes seem to be a way for people who already agree with each other to talk, said Coates. They are an in-joke for people who are already in the know. Coates said that he didn’t know if memes have much significance beyond whipping up the people who are already engaged. They’re helping the base reiterate what they’re already saying, he concluded.
When Davies said that the Obama campaign had used memes like “binders full of women” as a weapon to skewer Romney, McKinnon noted that campaign strategies are evolving with technology. The slice of persuadable voters has become narrower, he said, and campaigns are fighting over an increasingly limited pool. Digital technologies have created a wide array of tools for persuasion. Media objects like memes are now part of campaigns’ multichannel strategy, allowing them to broadcast a message that used to go out over a single channel, such as a post-debate press conference. Electronic media gives campaigns multiple channels in which to make their point.
Kelly Kreitz, visiting scholar in Comparative Media Studies, said that when people are talking about the potential of new media technology for journalism, they often either see the optimistic side—that the Internet allows for new voices to enter the debate—or the pessimistic—that people only get their news from sources with which they agree. Does seeing the landscape in such either-or terms miss something, and if so, what is going on underneath the rhetoric?
Why can’t the positive and negative both be true, asked Mnookin. Kreitz agreed, saying that she believed there was both good and bad in new developments.
McKinnon said that a major today is the surfeit of available information, allowing people to choose the narratives and “facts” they prefer. This is happening in the gun control debate—facts or opinions put out by various organizations are becoming a “collective truth” because so many people believe them.
Mnookin asked Kreitz if she believed facts were a construct. Kreitz said the concept of what a “fact” was has changed through history as our cultural understanding of information evolved. She countered that it was evolving now, and it might be productive to think about alternate underpinnings for journalism other than empirical fact—such as opinion. Mnookin said he thought the “postmodern” assertion that facts are merely social constructions was problematic and that journalism required a factual underpinning.
Communications Forum photographer Greg Peverill-Conti asked if bipartisan, “balanced” news outlets ever truly existed. The journalism of the 1890s, he pointed out, was famously partisan.
Mnookin asserted that the mid-20th century had seen an attempt by journalists to be impartial and unbiased, and the audience member suggested that the time period might have been a historical anomaly. Coates pointed out that the previous “consensus” was predicated on the exclusion and repression of minority groups—African Americans, women, and gays and lesbians, for instance. If that was “consensus,” he said, he didn’t want to go back there and was happy to fight the battles going on in today’s news media and political sphere. Contentiousness might not be a bad thing.