In her well-known essay, “Insider Baseball,” Joan Didion lamented the insulated nature of campaign coverage. She wrote about how groups of journalists are given an elite status to travel with a campaign and cover a presidential candidate. On the campaign trail, journalists seem to have an unspoken agreement with the campaign staff, as well as each other, to cover staged events as if they are authentic. Didion argued that these reporters like the fanfare of covering campaigns, so they play along with the performances and include “certain colorful details” in their stories — such as the hug Michael Dukakis’ grandmother gave him before a speech or the slips of paper used by George H.W. Bush staff members to write their guesses for vice president on. And not only do they include these details, but they present them as fact. For example, when Michael Dukakis and his press secretary tossed around a baseball at the San Diego airport, reporters covered it as if it was something Dukakis did all the time for fun and exercise because he’s a “regular guy.” In reality, the campaign orchestrated the event. In fact, Dukakis tossed a baseball with a staff member in Ohio, but, when only one television news outlet got it on camera, the campaign restaged it.
This kind of reporting is often referred to as “pack journalism.” Journalists report on the same events, the same way, and avoid deviating from this uniform coverage. This makes it easier for politicians and their staff members to manipulate media coverage, and, as Didion discussed in her essay, it is clear that they do. In their reporting of performances on the campaign trail, journalists become the amplifiers of the campaign’s crafted message.
But what happens when a journalist breaks away from the pack and pulls back the curtain on these performances?
That’s exactly what Paul Ryan and his campaign staff found out last week. The Republican vice presidential candidate and his family went to a soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio, to help out and wash dishes, according to how the story was originally covered by the media. Michael Shaw wrote about the media coverage for The Huffington Post, discussing how several news outlets, including a CBS affiliate, NBC, the Associated Press and The New York Times, posted pictures of Ryan at the soup kitchen with captions that were “technically true but not true to the context.” How did Shaw know that? In her report of the event, Felicia Sonmez of The Washington Post wrote that Ryan washed pans that “did not appear to be dirty.” Sonmez also mentioned the surrounding cameras, and actions by Ryan’s staff that emphasized the orchestrated nature of the event.
In the past, Sonmez’s article might not have made much of a splash in the media cycle, but news of the fake photo op quickly spread online, resulting in a snowball effect. What was meant to make Ryan appear authentic and compassionate actually resulted in the complete opposite. Sonmez followed up with the charity’s president who said he was unhappy about the photo op and criticized the candidate for doing nothing at the soup kitchen. Since the photo op and subsequent backlash, the soup kitchen has also reported that it is losing donors, according to a Forbes article.
In Didion’s essay, she discussed how political journalists defend their coverage of staged events by saying that people should understand that politics is a show. The backlash following Ryan’s photo op illustrates that this is clearly not the case. Now that these ordinary people can share news and voice their opinions online, their critiques are heard, and the mainstream media responds. While I don’t know the exact path of how the news about Ryan’s “faked” photo op was shared, it appears that people’s online reactions to the inauthenticity of the photo drove the conversation and influenced the coverage by traditional media outlets, as was the case in Andrew Chadwick’s analysis of how news spread about the “bullygate” affair involving British prime minister Gordon Brown. In both cases, information was shared in the hybrid news system of traditional and new media in a multidirectional way.
In his article titled “Off the Bus,” Paul Fahri writes that media coverage of the campaign is changing in part because of the changing news system, namely the rise of the internet and bloggers. Fahri argues that while there are still reporters who travel with the candidates, this practice is on the decline. Perhaps this will pop the bubble that Didion was so frustrated by in her essay. As the fallout about Ryan’s photo op demonstrates, it might make it harder for campaigns to stage smaller moments, such as Dukakis’ game of catch and Ryan’s stop at the soup kitchen. Journalists like Sonmez might be less worried about the exclusive access to the candidate on the campaign trail because more reporting is being done from the newsroom. And citizen journalists aren’t worried about that at all. Also, there are more outlets for individuals, such as the president of the charity, to speak out. All of these factors are going to make it more and more difficult for campaigns to keep all the actors on the same page.
So, lesson learned? I don’t think staged events like Ryan’s soup kitchen photo op are going to disappear from campaigns. After all, that’s what campaigns are — staged. But I do think campaigns should be a little more wary moving forward when they plan their photo ops and “genuine” moments.