Reality journalism: Keeping up with the candidates

Seven weeks after former President Nixon’s funeral on April 27, 1994, Hunter Thompson published his own obituary for Nixon, “He Was a Crook,” on June 16 in Rolling Stone magazine. In it he blamed the practice of Objective Journalism for enabling Nixon to climb to the Oval Office: “It was the blind spot of Objective Journalism’s rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so All-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly.”

Thompson gave readers a taste of what Subjective Journalism might have shown them about the man they voted twice into the highest office in America: “We could always be sure of finding (him) on the Low Road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard. He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and omit a smell of death. Which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and tearing. It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.

That was Nixon’s style – and if you forgot it, he would kill you as a lesson to the others. Badgers don’t fight fair, bubba. That’s why God made dachshunds.”

We shall never know if doses of subjective journalism like Thompson’s would have helped Hubert Humphrey (in 1968) or George McGovern (in 1972) in their efforts to defeat Nixon. Reporters covering those presidential campaigns, for newspapers and network news, stuck mostly to the precepts of objective journalism.

Objective journalism, with its goal of fair, accurate and thorough coverage of politics, remains available. However, two factors have done much to wipe out the distinction between such coverage and subjective journalism as practiced today and explored here. One is the reliance, particularly among younger readers and watchers of news, to get their news from digital sources. These audiences want and expect news that is quickly digested and includes a guide or hint to its “meaning.” Also, the battle between the so-called “liberal-left wing” media and “conservative right-wing” ones often requires journalists to aim for skewered coverage. In that kind of coverage fact and opinion are often smoothly merged so that readers and watchers do not have the time, information and ability to separate them in their minds.

The growth of subjective, opinion journalism online sometimes seems to drown out the fair and independent journalism that traditional news organizations still provide.  In fact, the political blogs produced by those traditional news organizations sometimes obscure some of the objective reporting from the campaign trail.

The coverage of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy illustrates the primacy of subjective, opinion journalism.  Do samples culled from publications and websites during the past three months reveal whether or not they propel readers to see the crop of candidates from both parties clearly, or at least more clearly than the veil of objective neutrality permits?

Commenting on Hillary’s first major news conference with CNN, Jonah Goldberg wrote for National Review Online (“Estrangement from the Truth is a Problem for Hillary”): “It was a classical Clintonian way of lying: Make a sweeping, definitive-sounding statement (“I’ve never had a subpoena,” for her emails on Benghazi) and then when called on it, release a fog of technicalities.” Goldberg called these “technicalities “a farrago of misleading statements, blame-shifting and deception,” and concluded that Hillary has “forgotten how to fake convincingly.”

Goldberg has been writing opinion columns for decades and National Review has always been a reliable source of conservative commentary.  But it is worth asking: Is Goldberg’s depiction of Hillary’s style of deception equal to Thompson’s of Nixon’s conduct of political battle? Did readers grasp the “real” Nixon through Thompson’s images? Does Hillary come alive in Goldberg’s prose or does she appear as just another lying politician?

Writing for Canada’s National Post John Robson took a similar approach to “seeing” Hillary (“Clinton’s presidential battle”): “Even if Americans are ‘ready’ for a woman, she’s obnoxious, pushy, out of touch with normal people and so sourly, deviously dishonest, we long for her husband’s charmingly open deceit.” Feminists and others may find “pushy” obnoxious and reject portraying her husband as a used car salesman from whom you don’t much mind buying a lemon because he did it with folksy charm while she tries to sell it with a sour disposition.

Journalists looking at Hillary more favorably take a subjective stance by offering helpful hints for personality improvement. Writing for the New Republic Elspeth Reeve (“What Hillary Can Learn from Michelle Kwan’s Figure Skating Career”) recounts how Kwan responded after she had to settle for a bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics because of a tumble in the free skate competition: “After the competition, Kwan skated the exhibition she’d planned long before – in a gold dress, to the song ‘Fields of Gold.’ That, sports fans, is hubris. As she finished, tears ran down her cheeks. Take note, Hillary.” Readers may choose to wait for the movie.

Jamelle Bouie on Slate (“Why Hillary Clinton Should Go Full Nerd”) proposes that Hillary should “offer voters her authentic geeky self” because “Clinton is strongest when she sticks with the concrete – the nuts and bolts of government…Americans want solutions more than inspiration.” Bouie cites Carl Bernstein’s analysis of Hillary as “a woman who led a camouflaged life and continues to” and suggests that revealing her nerdiness to voters would be “the most authentic move she could make.” Forget the gold dress and tears.

Clinton is not the only candidate receiving this kind of “up close and personal” treatment from the media. Her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders got it in the New Republic from Chelsea Summers (“Bernie Sanders Was Just another Hippie Rummaging through My Mothers Fridge”): “One hot night in July 1972 I walked into my family’s kitchen to see my mother brandishing a broom at a skinny man who had his head stuck deep inside our refrigerator.

‘You get out!’ my mother yelled, hitting the man on his skinny ass…Years later, I’d find out that man was Bernie Sanders.” Readers do not find out if that encounter with the writer’s broom-wielding mom drove the young Sanders into the arms of socialism or shaped his character in any way. They can see, however, that age and years as a U.S. Senator have put some flesh on that skinny frame.

On the Daily Beast Donald Trump is derided for his “garish taste” and “awful hair.” In the New Republic readers can learn “how to piss off Donald Trump.”  All male Republican candidates are rated by their manliness on Slate (“The Macho Primary: Which Republican presidential candidate is the manliest?”).

Readers are likely to be bombarded with similar journalism during the fifteen months up to the November 2016 election. Letters and posts on websites may reveal whether such pieces accomplish what Thompson expected subjective journalism to do: provide readers with a clear view of candidates’ character.

Journalists may ask if such articles constitute “subjective journalism” as Thompson practiced it, or if they are journalism’s political news version of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”