Here at the Speculatron, we shall from time to time warn you about particularly odious forms of campaign journalism that will utterly ravage your mind and destroy your soul, because we are all about saving lives.
Today, we flash back to April of 2008 and a wonderful piece by Matt Taibbi titled "The Return of Evil Campaign Journalism." Despite the fact that it had maybe three too many network television metaphors, it was a valuable piece of criticism going into the 2008 campaign, and there's one particular genre of campaign journalism that's well worth watching out for now that 2012 is kicking into high gear -- namely, the "Sweet n' Blow" brand of campaign reporting:
The Sweet n' Blow, as the name suggests, is a no-calorie substitute for real journalism, a gossip column masquerading as political reportage. It's one of the key techniques for use in turning the election into a politics-free character drama. A true Sweet n' Blow piece makes it from the lede all the way to the last line without saying one fucking thing about what the candidate actually stands for. Instead, it will tell you a lot about the candidate's strategy for improving his "image," which incidentally had originally been created, at least in part, by the very reporter writing this new article.
In other words, in July, X reporter says Y candidate "lacks the warmth and charm that voters respond to"; in August, that same X reporter says Y candidate is now "going on the charm offensive." During the same period, Z candidate maybe struggles to overcome a reputation for "flip-flops," and reporter X will spend those months detailing and ultimately arbitrating on the success of those efforts.
There was a classic example of this stuff this past weekend in The New York Times, in a piece by Adam Nagourney called "2 Years After Big Speech, A Lower Key for Obama." The Times, incidentally, is one of the chief producers of this brand of campaign journalism. In every presidential election, the paper manufactures its own story lines around fictional candidate struggles to conquer certain adjectives. They will show candidates fighting for the title of the most "nuanced," wriggling away from tags like "prickly," and racing to great final showdowns of adjectives in the general election -- "brainy" versus "folksy," "emotional" versus "plodding," and so on.
And make no mistake about it, they invent these controversies out of thin air. One of the most conspicuous instances I can recall was December of 2003, when reporter Rick Lyman ran a piece called "From Patrician Roots, Dean Set Path of Prickly Independence" and then ran a piece just a few weeks later in which Dean had to defend himself against Lyman's charges that he was prickly ("I can be prickly with the press corps... I'm not usually prickly with other people."). Reporter calls candidate "prickly," then asks candidate to answer charges of prickliness. Now that's journalism!