Journalism, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media.
It is also defined as the public press.
The crew of journalists that Joan Didion describes in her 1988 article, Insider Baseball, seems to perfectly fit that definition. They follow the candidates from stop to stop and film every speech and each toss of a baseball.
Didion calls this “the process” — saying that it is “a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.”
It seems that by the media’s participation in this “process,” they are forgetting the second part of the definition of journalism — to be a public press.
Surely the public plays an important part in the electoral process and our government is set up to ensure that voters have access to their elected officials, but a large part of that access is funneled through the media.
So why does the media continue to participate in “the process?” Why do they ask the easy questions in interviews with politicians who need to be held accountable to their constituents? Who do we expect to ask candidates on the campaign trail the hard-hitting questions if the media does not — or cannot because they fear being denied access to sources and stories if they do?
Didion writes about a string of events in California where the candidate was clearly not speaking to gathered crowd. Michael Dukakis, Didion writes, hosted three events but they were under scheduled and the crowds seemed less than interested at some of the stops. Dukakis was earning prime media time by stopping through three major markets. His team was working “the process.”
The relationship between campaigns and the press is a very mutually beneficial one and one entity cannot do their job without the other. That much is clear.
Campaigns need the press to get their message out and reach voters.
The press needs access to candidates and politicians to give voters the information they need and to attract ratings — and advertisers — that they need to fund their operations.
The first seems to need the second just as much as the second needs the first. So why do the campaigns seem to hold the power position? And furthermore, why does the media play along?
Didion seems to touch on the ridiculousness of the events and the process, but she doesn’t describe any resistance to the process by any of the journalists around her.
“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,” Didion writes.
What would happen if the media stopped covering the meaningless events? Surely there is enough going on in the world to still fill an hour-long broadcast.
How would the campaigns respond? They would be forced to schedule events that engaged face to face with voters. Maybe they would have to answer policy questions and not give canned responses.
It seems that campaigns need the media just as much, if not more, than the media needs them. The media has a duty, though, to cover them for the public, so at what point do the refuse to engage in “the process,” and take back the power?