Monday, January 12, 2015


On NPR yesterday, Arun Rath interviewed Politico media reporter Dylan Byers. Byers whined about the upcoming presidential campaign, which he fears could be as unbearable to journalists as the the 2012 campaign. (Advice to Byers: Get a real job instead.) Byers and Rath agreed that the Internet is the villain (emphasis added in the interview excerpt below):
DYLAN BYERS: ... 2012, I mean, there's so much just about gaffs and about minutiae and about sideshows. And so you're sort of looking ahead to 2016, and you're thinking, oh, God, I hope we don't go through that again. The other thing that's happening is that because of the way that the media works right now - not just 24 hour cable news coverage, but also Twitter and social media and everything like that - the desire to constantly have fresh news is more intense than it ever has been before. And as a result, there's a greater hunger and need for content among journalists. And so anything - like, if it moves, shoot it. Anything that happens, they jump on it. And a lot of times, those are things that are totally irrelevant to voters.

RATH: Well, you're right that the web - and this is something that people have been saying for a while - that the internet is changing political reporting. But more so you're talking about stuff in the last few years, the age of click bait, maybe.

BYERS: Yeah. It's click bait. And it's, you know, if you have more outlets and more either reporters or folks who sort of fashion themselves as reporters, regardless of whether or not the fact they're even leaving their desks or leaving their computers, they're all sort of competing for viewers or readers. And they're competing for clicks. And how do you get those clicks? And what you have to do is you have to take to the sort of boring news of the day, and you have to spike it. You have the hype it up.
And what's their idea of "click bait"?
RATH: And you write about how we have this phenomenon with all these different sources now of a media feeding-frenzy. And I think the earliest example you cite of that is the infamous Swift Boat ads attacking Senator John Kerry.

BYERS: Right. So here's a group, the Swift Boat Veterans, who come forward, and they have a story. And they're trying to push it and make headline news with it - right? - and make John Kerry look bad. And I spoke to Ron Fournier, now at The National Journal, used to be at the Associated Press. He's at the Associated Press, and he says, look, there's no way we're going to cover this story. It's not a legitimate story. And it's sort of beneath us to give these guys a platform to make this case. Over time, you have blogs and other news outlets who do make it a story. Readers certainly love it. The thing sort of picks up. And then all of a sudden, news organizations like Associated Press are there, and they say, like, there's no way we can't cover this. And that's the way that the sort of feeding-frenzy can move news organizations that would otherwise exercise editorial judgment to maybe abandon that judgment.
Was the Swift Boat story Internet-driven? In a word, no.

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth held their first press conference in May 2004, but their first TV ad went on the air in early August. And as Gabriel Sherman notes in his book on Fox, The Loudest Voice in the Room, it was Fox that gave the story all the push it needed:
The ad arrived at Fox through Hannity’s right-wing connections. “A new television ad released tomorrow is sure to drive the Kerry campaign crazy,” Hannity said on the air [on August 4]. “It was paid for by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and it features Vietnam vets who are opposing Senator Kerry’s candidacy. Now Hannity & Colmes has exclusively obtained a copy of this ad before anybody else. Let’s take a peek.”

... “That’s a hard-hitting ad,” Hannity remarked when it was over. He told his viewers that, in addition to airing the ad in its entirety the next night, he would talk live with the Swift Boat vets themselves....

The next day, a $500,000 ad campaign hit the airwaves in Ohio, Wisconsin, and West Virginia, key swing states. It was a modest buy. But Fox News gave the ad the oxygen it needed to explode. Throughout the week, hosts and pundits hotly debated the charges from all sides. On August 5, Brit Hume’s newscast ran two segments about the ad. That night, Bill O’Reilly, burnishing his no-spin bona fides, castigated Kerry’s accusers. “I think this is awful,” he complained to Dick Morris.

“I not only think it’s awful, I think it’s stupid and dangerous,” Morris replied.

Pro or con, it did not matter. Just talking about the controversy gave it juice.
Hume's Special Report did 42 Swift Boat stories on 22 broadcasts in the month of August 2004 alone.

Sorry, but Byers is using weasel words when he says that this story was promoted by "blogs and other news outlets." He doesn't want to name names. He feeds into the perception that the Swift Boaters became famous because of a bunch of amateur bloggers in pajamas, the 2004 equivalent of hashtag activists and Net-centric news aggregators who don't expend any shoe leather. That's inaccurate. The story was pushed by Fox. That's how it broke.


Oh, and it's not as if Fournier held himself above the fray for weeks -- he published an interview with McCain on the subject of the Swift Boat ads on August 5, then a Kerry interview a couple of weeks later. McCain denounced the ads in that August 5 interview, but that was just as the story was taking off, so Fournier's interview gave the story impetus. He can't pretend he turnd up his nose at the story as it broke.


Victor said...

I remember how quickly that malicious story spread.
And how slow the Kerry team's response to it was.

What was that Twain line?
'A lie is halfway around the world before the truth can put its boots on.'
Something like that.

And it's only natural that some of these pundit clowns disavow any knowledge or responsibility for its spread.
After all, the American people, never known for their long memories, have had over 10 years to forget who said what to whom, about whom, when, where, why, and how.

And, besides, you know how those bloggers are...

Lex Alexander said...

Gosh. Poor Byers. If only journalists had, you know, some kind of framework for deciding whether something's a story or not. And if only they had the free will to exercise that framework appropriately. We could call the process "editing," if we wanted to get fancy.

Ken_L said...

Ah for the good old days when you could spend a relaxing Sunday at a candidate's country mansion and decide with your colleagues what tomorrow's story would be while you enjoyed a few drinks on the coach at the end of the day. That was true journalism.

Unsalted Sinner said...

"And it's, you know, if you have more outlets and more either reporters or folks who sort of fashion themselves as reporters, regardless of whether or not the fact they're even leaving their desks or leaving their computers, they're all sort of competing for viewers or readers."

I assume this group includes poll aggregator Nate Silver, who intrepid professional reporter Dylan Byers -- in a scoop that was a triumph of serious journalisting -- revealed as a mere aggregator of polls.

Roger said...

Click bait?

Dylan Byers is a master baiter.