Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades. In the post below he looks at political resistance to changes in the press.
Reporters were not invited to the April 6th fund-raiser in San Francisco, where Senator Barack Obama answered a question by remarking that given the long economic decline of small towns in Pennsylvania it was “not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustration.” Mayhill Fowler, who had been following the campaign as a blogger for the HuffingtonPost.com, attended the event. Regarding herself as a “citizen journalist,” she felt unbound by the rules that restricted traditional reporters. She posted blogs quoting the senator’s remarks on April 7th and 10th that drew little notice, but on April 11th she included the controversial comments that exploded into an issue in the Pennsylvania primary. Her blogs also included sound recordings of the entire event. The incident made politicians from across the political spectrum realize that nothing they say will ever be off-the-record for bloggers armed with cell phone cameras and digital recorders. This development will undoubtedly cause politicians to recalculate their strategies of dealing with the media, and force the media to adjust to the new reality.
The phenomenon is not unprecedented. New technology has been disrupting the rules that politicians have forged with the press since the days when the telegraph arrived on the political scene in the 1840s. Before that first form of electronic communication, politicians thought in terms of party newspapers, whose chief duties were to publish their speeches, defend their policies, and promote their candidacies. Everyone knew where those papers stood politically, and how their reporters were inclined. Politicians trusted reporters from their own party’s papers to be discreet, and avoiding talking to reporters from the opposition papers. But then wire services adopted an impartial style of reporting so they could sell news to papers of all political hues. This gave birth to what became known as objective journalism, where reporters recorded what they heard, without taking sides on its substance. To gather news and foster candor in this new environment, reporters over time worked out careful ground rules with their political sources, so that both sides knew what they meant when remarks were off-the-record, not for attribution, and on deep background.
But politicians have always taken some time to adjust to new media. “I distrust all telegraphic reports,” John C. Calhoun said in the Senate shortly before his death in 1850. Senator Henry Clay showed similar resistance. When Clay delivered his last stump speech in Lexington, Kentucky, he refused to talk so long as an Associated Press reporter took notes in the audience. The reporter left but then pieced together the speech by interviewing those who heard it. Swearing profusely, Senator Clay expressed his outrage that a reporter for unknown papers would presume to report what he had said to his own constituents without first obtaining his consent. The rules of the game as Clay had so long played it, had passed away, just as the bloggers are changing the rules today.