Joan Didion’s “Insider Baseball” addresses the relationship between the journalist and the political candidate, in a way that questions the democratic and ethical principles of campaigns and campaign reporting. She describes a couple of events she witnessed on Michael Dukakis’ campaign trail in the 1998 presidential election, in which Dukakis was eventually defeated by George H.W. Bush—specifically describing the banality of several campaign events and contrasting her the normalcy of each with the corresponding news coverage. As she says early in the piece, “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” It seems that all of the journalists with access to Dukakis’ campaign were aware that the events they were witnessing were staged for their benefit only—elaborate PR stunts orchestrated solely to garner “free advertising” via news outlets. I think my favorite part of the article is where she describes one particular item on the media’s itinerary: “tarmac arrival with baseball tossing.” Dukakis and Jack Weeks, his secretary, exited the plane and began tossing a baseball back and forth for 16 minutes in boiling heat, ostensibly for Dukakis to release tension after his three hour flight. But according to Didion, Dukakis and his team had staged a similar event outside a bowling alley and were disappointed that the obviously hard-hitting news was only covered by CNN, and decided to pitch it again. She describes the ridiculousness of the event as well as the subsequent news coverage—by several different outlets and broadcasters.
The baseball mitts had been produced, and Jack Weeks, the traveling press secretary, had tossed a ball to the candidate. The candidate had tossed the ball back. The rest of us had stood in the sun and given this our full attention, undeflected even by the arrival of an Alaska 767: some forty adults standing on a tarmac watching a diminutive figure in shirtsleeves and a red tie toss a ball to his press secretary.
The whole scene strikes me as laughable, chuckle-worthy at the very least. Forty reporters standing outside a plane watching a fifty-something man in a tie throwing a ball. Judging by the typical elements of newsworthiness—impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, conflict, currency, bizarreness and human interest—this should be of little to no interest for reporters. Arguably the “story’s” only redeeming quality was that it served to humanize the presidential candidate, which, surely, Dukakis’ campaign organizers and PR directors were aware of. So, if the event lacks newsworthiness, why did these forty journalists cover it at all? Why would The Washington Post and U.S. News & World bother devoting valuable space in their publications to such a mundane event?
The answer is simple—access. Campaigns give access to journalists in exchange for news coverage. Insider access is especially valuable in journalism, as those with the most sources get the best stories. Stories are how journalists build their brand, and a coveted byline is every reporter’s dream. Access to a president’s campaign is a high honor, and as journalists—particularly on a political beat—you learn to swallow the empty calories they feed you: careful and politically correct press releases, contrived statements and publicity stunts. But, the question remains, why not turn that access into commentary on the superficiality and ingenuousness of campaign events? Surely exposing the caprice of the candidate’s performance is more interesting for readers than a president tossing a ball—in addition, it sidesteps the ethical grey area that typical coverage resides in.
The Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics outlines standards of behavior for reporters covering stories—key values include truth, independence, accountability and transparency.
“Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”
“Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government.”
“Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.”
“Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news.”
The SPJ encourages reporters not to be taken in by the demands of the 24 hours news cycle by remaining impartial and unbiased, reporting the truth accurately. Trading access for coverage does not violate the SPJ’s code of ethics per se, but it does call into question the principles behind the SPJ’s code. In addition to reporting the truth, the SPJ demands journalistic independence—it comes down to refusing anything that would compromise the accuracy of your reporting. As Didion describes, and explicitly states, the events of the campaign trail are not real: “among those who traveled regularly with the campaigns, in other words, it was taken for granted that these “events” they were covering, and on which they were in fact filing, were not merely meaningless but deliberately so: occasions on which film could be shot and no mistakes made.” Covering such events and giving them meaning in stories distorts the reality of the campaign—doing so willingly in exchange for access to more meaningless events stretches standards of ethical behavior just far enough that the proverbial rubber band could snap.
The relationship between journalist and politician is symbiotic—they need each other. For every reporter that publishes a scathing critique on the hollowness of a candidate’s campaign, another will eagerly step in and exchange journalistic integrity for access. Until other journalists such as Didion lift the axiomatic veil, things are unlikely to change—but at least maybe the public will learn to see past the soft balls.