Last week, Jon Ralston, a veteran Las Vegas Sun columnist, dared reporters to ignore Donald Trump's unveiling of his presidential endorsement -- with low expectations about how that might play out.
"I suggest media boycott of @RealDonaldTrump event in Vegas," Ralston tweeted. "Anyone with me? That's what I thought."
Ralston knew, of course, that the nation's political reporters -- the same tribe who breathlessly covered Trump's half-hearted flirtation last year with a presidential run, his "birther" sideshow and his thwarted plans to host and moderate a GOP debate -- wouldn't ignore the real estate huckster's "major announcement."
And, indeed, they didn't, thereby sparking the latest mini-drama in the reality show otherwise known as the 2012 Republican presidential primaries.
While any campaign reporter you meet will say it's ridiculous to give any more oxygen to Trump in this election cycle (and some of them will even go so far as to mock the primaries' circus-like atmosphere on Twitter) many of them still raced to cover the Trump endorsement.
In their haste, several major news organizations -- including the Associated Press, The New York Times, Politico and CBS News -- erroneously reported that Trump planned to endorse former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Countless others, including The Huffington Post, repeated those reports. All had to backtrack when it became clear former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would get the Trumpster's nod. Come showtime, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News all had Romney live, standing at a podium featuring a Trump plaque, in a Trump hotel, accepting a Trump endorsement.
Reporters swarmed the Trump event for the same reason they have pursued and then coughed up almost every other bit of minutiae, no matter how irrelevant or meaningless, around the primaries. In a media landscape replete with Twitter, Facebook, personal blogs and myriad other digital, broadcast and print sources, nothing is too inconsequential to be made consequential.
Political junkies, political operatives and political reporters consume most of this dross, and in this accelerated, 24/7 news cycle, a day feels like a week, with the afternoon's agreed-upon media narrative getting turned on its head by the evening's debate. Candidates rise, fall, and rise again, all choreographed to the rat-a-tat background noise of endless minutia.
Yet while political insiders are flocking to social media sites for their campaign fix, the general public isn't following them. Among adults nationwide who say they get campaign news online, just two percent say they regularly learn about the Republican primary from Twitter, according to a quadrennial survey released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Six percent of those surveyed get campaign news from Facebook; three percent from YouTube.
Overall, Pew found that "fewer Americans are closely following news about the presidential campaign than four years ago." Despite an inattentive audience, the volume of coverage just keeps amping up.
This past January -- during which reporters followed campaigns through Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida -- will rank as one of most frenetic, media saturated months in recent memory. In addition to the inexorable flood of news, opposition research and a never-ending Twitter stream, the presidential election was the biggest news story across newspapers, online news sites, broadcast and cable networks and talk radio, according to Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
There was an average of one Republican debate every five days in January, along with hundreds of campaign stops by actual candidates and one massive rally in Charleston featuring two non-candidates: Stephen Colbert and Herman Cain.
While reporters and political insiders absorb the primary show frame-by-frame, such granularity may be obscuring larger truths or trends. A January Pew study found "many voters unaware of basic facts about GOP candidates." For instance, only about half of those surveyed knew Romney had been the governor of Massachusetts. Less than half knew Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) wants U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
The study suggests that there's a real disconnect between those following the up-to-the-millisecond campaign conversation and the rest of the country, which is less focused on the rush of details and more concerned about the struggling economy and their livelihoods.
As Jeff Zeleny, a New York Times political reporter, said en route to the Nevada primary last week, "It feels like the whole enterprise is moving a lot faster, so much so that its been easy to sometimes lose focus of the big picture."
It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.
-- William Shakespeare, Macbeth.
The Colbert-Cain event was a media spectacle of the first order, with a full marching band playing LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" leading the pair onto the College of Charleston campus. Thousands attended, including 150 members of the media, from outlets like Politico, Slate, and the Washington Post.
The morning after Colbert and Cain crooned for the crowd and the press, the political reporter hive began buzzing over Romney and Gingrich's dueling campaign stops at Tommy's Ham House in Greenville, South Carolina, feverishly tweeting the news with a "#hamgate" hashtag. (Other reporters opted for "Aporkalypse now," "hamaquiddick," and even "the Thrilla in Greenvilla.")
During the event, reporters tweeted as Romney arrived, climbed over a table, stood on crates, and left the building before his rival got there -- a fact that a Gingrich spokesman was quick to point out. The New York Times documented the "near showdown over some real pork," while Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN all threw to correspondents live on the scene.
"The great clash that many thought would be over eggs and pork, all things pork, at this ham house was not to be," noted Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto.
Later on "NBC Nightly News," correspondent Ron Mott summed things up: "No matter how you sliced it, hamgate was quintessential red, white and blue election day theater."
Theater is a good word for hamgate, just one of countless much-hyped, soon-to-be forgotten mini-dramas that, if they were lost on the electorate, still seemed to excite political reporters.
"It's stories like #hamgate that make me love my job," tweeted ABC News reporter Elicia Dover.
Several hours later, Gingrich won the Palmetto State's primary. "Hamgate," according to a Lexis-Nexis search, hasn't been mentioned in news reports since.
FRAME-BY-FRAME VS. BIG PICTURE
There's a long tradition of handwringing about political journalists focusing on the trivial at the expense of the meaningful, generally apace with similar concerns about how technology affects campaign reporting.
During the 1988 presidential race, the nation's most plugged-in political reporters and operatives downloaded a 20-page digest of newspaper articles, spin, and campaign trail nuggets at 10 a.m. each day called the Hotline. The next issue didn't arrive for another 24 hours, but this computer-delivered compendium raised eyebrows.
"With Hotline," Newsweek warned at the time, "it is theoretically possible for reporters to cover the '88 campaign without leaving their computer terminals."
Such concerns now seem quaint, given that Twitter has made it possible for reporters to cover -- or for anyone in the world to follow -- every single moment of the 2012 campaign with an iPhone, where they're a tap away from non-stop election news, analysis, and…minutia.
No scoop is too small or campaign pushback too insignificant, with Republican campaigns -- almost like mini-media organizations themselves -- regularly blasting out (or leaking out) bits of opposition research, statements or tweets that quickly gain traction among reporters. While some may find it overwhelming to deal with the daily deluge of content and report at the same time, some reporters say Twitter can also be "liberating," because it enables them to keep up with what's going on at all times.
"Tiny pebbles of news are shared and distributed instantly, with a lot less lede-burying and a lot more detail," Slate's Dave Weigel said in an email. "That old feeling -- 'Gosh, I'm sure I'm missing something as I gas up my car between Sioux City and Des Moines' -- is reduced tremendously."
Weigel also said there's a "new kind of camaraderie" among political reporters because of Twitter "and flattening of elite/lumpen media relations, because of the information constantly being shared."
Twitter also flattens out everything produced daily, with each tweet running on top of one another, in 140 characters or fewer.
On Monday, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith described how one of his reporter's scoops was amplified last Friday over Twitter, while another reporter's piece -- which didn't get as many retweets -- got buried in the Twitter stream.
Smith wrote that Twitter "remains the political class's front page; more comprehensive, and faster, than any publication can be," while acknowledging that these days, "more than one or four years ago ... news can fall between the cracks."
Other top political reporters, in interviews on the trail and off in recent weeks, expressed some concerns about whether good reporting and analysis still breaks through the daily deluge, along with whether all this daily content amounts to actual journalism.
"If you are off your computer for an hour, the volume of tweets and emails is overwhelming and just to get through that -- and then you feel you're in this circular conversation with people who are slightly disconnected with the real America," Washington Post chief correspondent Dan Balz said back in Des Moines, Iowa last month.
National Journal editorial director Ron Brownstein, standing next to Balz, said "it feels, with so much out there, it in essence is devaluing anything that's out there."
A few days later in Concord, New Hampshire, NBC's David Gregory talked about the "incredible crush of information," shortly after rehearsing for the 15th (of 19) Republican debates so far this campaign cycle -- an event that drove even more coverage in the waning days of the New Hampshire primary.
"We also have to step back and be mindful of not constantly doing pre, post-game sort of process analysis, horserace analysis," Gregory said. "That's been a question for journalism before the social media era, but it can be amplified by social media platforms where its just an obsessive focus on who's up and who's down and what does it mean for the next stop, and really think about what are the problems in the country, what are the questions that people have, what's the course of leadership in America."
Gregory's competitors have pondered similar issues, though some simply shrug it off.
"Is there some silliness? Is there some inanity?" CNN's John King asked during an interview in the North Charleston Coliseum, a day before his infamous on-stage battle with Gingrich that helped tip the state in Gingrich's favor. "Are there some things out there that call themselves media that don't meet John King's definition of journalism? Absolutely. You know what, welcome to the First Amendment."
New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich, in an interview before he jumped back on the campaign trail in Florida, said of 2012's constant media churn that "the noise that's been there for many cycles has [become] louder and more deafening."
It's louder and more deafening in part because reporters and campaigns rely on Twitter, for better or for worse, and have less regard for how the general public might be digesting the information.
NBC's Chuck Todd says the Twitter conversation isn't always the best gauge for the public's interest, noting that his network's Florida debate had strong ratings despite being panned on Twitter.
"For all the Twitter junkies, it's 'where's all the applause,'" Todd said, referring to moderator Brian Williams' instructions for the audience not to applaud. "Then you look at the ratings, and it was the exact opposite." (The NBC debate in Florida was the second-highest rated of the cycle, averaging over 7.12 million viewers.)
While there may be a disproportionate number of campaign reporters and operatives on Twitter, regular people who frequently use Twitter aren't necessarily doing so with the 2012 election in mind. "Most Twitter users," according to the new Pew survey, "say they hardly ever (19%) or never (40%) learn about the election from Twitter."
Todd says he gets more "diverse analysis" by following political events on Twitter, but he isn't under the illusion that everyone else in the country is similarly plugged in. "I love it, as a reporter and an analyst," he said. "But for the general public, I don't feel like it's that useful."
'LOOKING FOR SOMETHING TO WRITE'
For campaigns, however, Twitter has become very useful.
"I would follow the reporters, especially our embeds, as they were covering events," said Alice Stewart, who worked as national press secretary for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a former candidate. "There were times they would catch something that needed some clarification. I'd try to clear it up before it went viral."
The Romney campaign clearly keeps tabs of what reporters are tweeting, with the New York Times reporting that its "war room compiles all the Twitter messages from the press corps at every event and e-mails them to the campaign staff."
One day last week, five Romney staffers could be found criticizing Gingrich on Twitter, even adding the hashtag "unhinged" to their tweets to help spread that negative perception of the former speaker. But the highest level of campaign pushback usually comes during debates, as reporters and campaigns staffers remain glued to their Twitter feeds.
Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign and Romney's press secretary during the 2008 race, said in an earlier interview that Twitter is the "aggregator for all the political news that's taking place" and serves "as everybody's direct conduit to campaign events."
By following the instant analysis, Madden said, campaigns can respond over Twitter before their candidate has left the stage. That creates less need for damage control when surrogates argue on behalf of their candidates in the post-debate "spin room" -- a tradition that seems to have started after a 1984 Reagan-Mondale debate, according to Roger Simon's campaign book "Road Show."
"I think in many ways the spin room is dead," Madden said. "Oftentimes, when you go into a spin room now you have an advocacy point about the debate and a reporter will say, 'I saw your tweet on that.'"
Campaigns have adapted to the frenetic news cycle quite well, playing not only defense -- like engaging in rapid response during debates -- but also going on the offensive.
Tim Miller, who served as national press secretary for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's campaign, said a major change between 2008 and 2012 is that now "everybody is looking to cover the process, minutia."
"You could use this to your advantage," Miller said in an interview after his candidate dropped out of the race. "It wasn't hard to get things written. Everybody is looking for something to write."
Indeed, Zeleny said he thinks "the campaigns can sort of distract reporters throughout the day by helping fuel these mini-stories, mini-controversies." Todd compared the way campaigns drop pieces of "oppo" research on their rivals to "lighting a match and seeing if they can start a wildfire."
WHAT HAPPENED IN VEGAS
Last Thursday, Ivanka Trump sounded ecstatic.
"Watching my father @DonaldJTrump endorse Mitt Romney for GOP Nomination @TrumpLasVegas! Well done!"
Romney digital campaign director Zac Moffatt quickly retweeted Ivanka's post, and by that same afternoon other Republicans were trying to distract the press corps from the Vegas spectacle. Gingrich campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond blasted out an email with the subject, "Donald Trump Wasn't Always a Fan of Mitt Romney." Hammond's email was adorned with critical statements Trump had made about the former Massachusetts governor on CNN, Fox News and in Newsmax magazine.
Meanwhile, the Ron Paul campaign responded to the Vegas carnival by questioning the newsworthiness of the latest Trump saga in an email to reporters: "Please explain to us why anyone would care."
Still, the Paul campaign clearly cared enough about the churn of the political news cycle to also include several links to articles highlighting Trump's past history of endorsing and contributing to prominent Democrats, while adding that the campaign hopes "media reports of this event will include this delicious irony."
While the national press couldn't resist helping the campaigns lob their shots at one another, it paid considerably less attention to how the economic crisis has damaged Nevada, a state with the dubious distinction of leading the nation in unemployment, foreclosure filings and underwater mortgages.
"I think the national media, when they're out here, or any other state, are just covering the speeches and the color," said Ralston, the Sun columnist. "They're not delving too much into those issues."
National media coverage of the Nevada caucus, in this respect, isn't so different from other early voting states. Reporters swarm to campaign events, at times outnumbering actual voters, grab quotes from locals and then prepare for the next contest. Reporters do look for local angles, but often only so they can help explain the horse race -- like, say, how the evangelical vote matters in Iowa or the importance of the Mormon vote in Nevada.
States have unique issues and concerns, but they generally end up as backdrops for the media's preferred campaign narrative: who's up and who's down. Major differences from state to state become cosmetic. In Iowa, reporters color pieces with references to cornfields. In Nevada, it's all about the "high-stakes" election, or a candidate's "gamble."
In Nevada caucus post-mortems, Ralston said, journalists mostly focused on the low turnout and disorganization in the caucus process itself. In some neighborhoods, like the area surrounding Reno, turnout among Republicans was a dismal 8 percent. That's reminiscent of Iowa, where the entire political media apparatus descended in January to cover a caucus in which just 5.4 percent of the state's registered voters actually participated.
And then there was the Trump event, which Ralston said had "no discernible impact at all [on the election], and yet every single media member was there."
Well, not everyone.
"I refused to go," Ralston said, voting with his feet against noise pollution. "I think Donald Trump is such a cancer on the body politic."
Reporters swarming the Republican candidates:
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more