Governance in a World Beyond the News Cycle

by Karen Tumulty
Monday, October 7, 2019
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The arrival of Donald Trump in Washington has changed many things about the nation’s capital and how it operates. One of the most elemental of those is its metabolism.

That became clear to me early one morning just weeks after the 2017 inauguration. It was a few minutes before dawn, and I was getting ready to pour the day’s first cup of coffee when my iPhone started buzzing on my kitchen counter. An editor was sending a message to the entire national reporting staff through one of the Washington Post’s internal email channels. What, I wondered, could possibly be so urgent that it would merit alerting the newsroom at an hour when most people who work there were still asleep? I opened the email, and it turned out to consist of only five words: “He’s awake, and he’s tweeting.”

Over the past two and a half years, those words have come to describe the world into which those of us in the news business wake each morning in Washington. And those early morning bursts are just the opening bell. Social-media blasts from the president throw things into disarray throughout the workday and late into the night. The commander-in-chief’s thumbs don’t take a break at the close of business on Friday. On one weekend alone last spring, Trump hammered out 52 tweets in the space of 34 hours.

To the dismay even of many who support him, Trump uses his Twitter feed (which currently has 64.3 million followers) for purposes that are trivial, petty, and beneath the dignity of his office. He airs his grievances against the news media; hurls insults at and attaches nicknames to those he perceives to be his adversaries; and makes inflated and inaccurate boasts about himself and his achievements. Many times, his tweets appear to be prompted by something Trump has just seen on Fox News or another cable channel (though he claims he doesn’t spend much time watching television).

But not everything he does over Twitter is trivial. This president also conducts some of his most important business over that platform. He announces changes in key administration personnel (his first secretary of state and third national security adviser were fired via tweet), initiates new policies and reverses them, even engages in diplomacy and international trade negotiations via that 280-character format.

Those tweets have become more than a means of communication. The president has actually altered the balance of power among the branches of government. Legislation moves—or doesn’t—according to the latest directive sent out over social media. Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson, a Republican who is retiring at the end of the year, noted in a recent interview with Politico how reactive the legislative branch has become. Institutionalists worry that Congress is increasingly abdicating its role to the executive branch. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will not move legislation if he does not know the president will sign it, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chamber can do little on its own. So as Isakson put it, this is the “first time ever in history when the president sets the agenda every day when he tweets at 4 in the morning. Pelosi will drive some trains. Mitch will drive others. And the president it going to drive ones he wants to drive.”

Lawmakers are not the only ones who are living in a constantly reactive mode. One of the quandaries for journalists is our own role in perpetuating and escalating some of the more unhealthy aspects of the current environment. Consider the recent Category 5 tweetstorm that became known as “Sharpiegate.” After being called on his incorrect claim that Hurricane Dorian was likely to hit Alabama, the president produced an out-of-date weather map that had been doctored with a felt-tip pen, reportedly by Trump himself. That shouldn’t have merited more than a day of coverage, but it escalated nonetheless. It became more consequential when the Trump White House—at the direction of the president himself—put pressure on the scientists at the National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration to back up the false claim. So what began as something relatively insignificant turned into an effort to improperly influence what is supposed to be an independent agency, and one whose mission is public safety no less.

Where does this leave the media? Should journalists be covering every presidential tweet? And if not, where does one draw the line between those that should be treated seriously and those that should be ignored? Every one of these 280-character outbursts is a presidential pronouncement, and that means each, by definition, is “news.” But there is also merit in the complaint that journalists, seeking the clicks and ratings that follow Trump’s every move, are being complicit in their own manipulation and distraction. There are small remedial steps we can take. I, for one, have used the license that I have as an op-ed columnist to declare that I will no longer repeat the insulting nicknames that Trump bestows on people who challenge or annoy him. But the presidency has long been an office that bestows the power to shape the news, and social media has given the chief executive an unprecedented opportunity to shape the narrative and even bend the facts. As of mid-August, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker had documented more than 12,000 false or misleading claims made by Trump since he took office and found that nearly one in five of them “stemmed from his itchy Twitter finger.”

There is some evidence—tentative, at this point—that the public is getting inured to and exhausted by all of this. Earlier this year, the social-media-monitoring tool CrowdTangle published data showing that the “interaction rate” for Trump’s tweets—that is, a measure of what proportion of his Twitter followers react by either “liking” or retweeting his posts—had dropped precipitously. In May 2019, the rate was only one-third of what it had been in November 2016, the month he was elected. This was occurring even as—or perhaps because—the frequency of his tweets had risen dramatically.

Technology that allows a president to communicate more directly with the citizenry—and that allows average people to give instant feedback—is in many ways a healthy, democratizing development. But while this White House is finding new ways to connect with the public, it has been doing away with some of the old ones. Worrisome among these developments is the elimination of the formal press briefing, which had been a near-daily event going back to when Richard M. Nixon converted the West Wing swimming pool into a space to be used specifically for that purpose. The briefing was frequently a frustrating exercise for those on both sides of the lectern and became more so after Bill Clinton’s press secretary Mike McCurry in 1995 allowed them to be televised. In the first year and a half of the Trump presidency, the briefing room became a battle ground, where dissembling by White House officials became so intense there was talk that reporters should boycott. Reporters themselves were often guilty of preening for the cameras, rather than eliciting information.

The briefings got shorter and shorter, until they disappeared entirely. As I write this, there has not been a White House press briefing in more than six months (the last one was March 11, 2019). Before that, there had been a 41-day gap. In place of those once-regular exchanges, reporters have been reduced to chasing officials down the White House driveway for comment or throwing questions at the president himself in chaotic settings, such as photo ops, where there is little opportunity for follow up. There are also the now familiar scenes where journalists are forced to shout their questions over the noise of the president helicopter. News briefings at the Pentagon, once a regularly scheduled occurrence, have also become rare.

This is a dangerous development, not only for the press and the public but also for the policy process itself. Knowing that a press secretary would have to answer questions in a regular, public forum forced important discussions and arguments among decision-makers. They recognized that, as long as there was a regular process by which journalists could publicly ask questions, they were likely to be exposed and embarrassed for policies that had not been carefully thought through and worked out before they were announced. Former press secretary McCurry explained it to me this way: “With sharper and clearer answers, you get sharper and clearer policy.” Nearly all of the contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have gone on record as saying they will bring back regular briefings.

In recent weeks, we have seen a very clear example of where a daily media briefing would be helpful as tensions between the United States and Iran have ratcheted up after attacks on the Saudi oil industry. Administration officials, including the president and the secretary of state, have issued cryptic and conflicting statements (including, on Trump’s part, via Twitter). When you have the president of the United States talking about being “locked and loaded” to use “the ultimate option” against a foreign adversary, it is critical that his administration speak clearly and consistently about the implications—for the sake of both the American people, and for this country’s allies around the world.

It would be a mistake here to portray all of this as a product of this administration, or to suggest that the relationship between the president and the media will ever go back to being what it was. The current situation is not a phenomenon that began with Donald Trump. It is the product of forces that were building for decades before the 2016 election and which will not disappear once Trump has left the scene. No one really can predict the degree to which he has permanently altered the workings of politics and governance, or whether they will snap back to something more recognizable once he has left the scene.

What is certain to remain after Trump is gone is a deeply polarized and skeptical country, much of which gets its information in a siloized fashion through media outlets and social platforms that serve to confirm preconceived ideas, rather than challenge them. The clout of large legacy news organizations has been diminished by this atomization, as well as by technological changes, which made it possible—and preferable—for Trump and his recent predecessors to get their message out without going through the traditional media gatekeepers. The realities of the new media environment also increase the incentive for the president and other leaders to choose only friendly outlets. According to one tally done by CBS News’ White House correspondent Mark Knoller in mid-2019, Trump since taking office had given 61 interviews to Fox News Channel, but only five each to ABC and CBS, seven to NBC and its sister network MSNBC, and none at all to CNN.

Trump is not the first president to search out new ways to connect with and broaden his audience. Nor is he the first to jolt the system when he does it. Consider this: For nearly half the nation’s history, the idea of a chief executive personally delivering a speech to Congress was considered an act so presumptuous as to be nearly unthinkable. It was a radical act when Woodrow Wilson traveled to Capitol Hill a month after his 1913 inauguration to deliver an address on tariffs. “Washington is amazed,” The Washington Post pronounced in a headline, over a story about this astonishing development that noted no president since John Adams had done such a thing. “Disbelief was expressed in congressional circles when the report that the President would read his message in person to the Congress was first circulated,” The Post reported, but assured its readers that such spectacles were “not to become a habit.”

Wilson thought otherwise, and eight months later returned to Congress “in pursuance of my constitutional duty to ‘give to the Congress information of the state of the Union.’” The State of the Union address—which no president between John Adams and Wilson delivered in person—is now an annual ritual. In 1922, Warren Harding was the first to broadcast his state of the union address to a limited radio audience; Calvin Coolidge took his national the following year; Harry Truman tried the new medium of television for his State of the Union speech in 1947; and Bill Clinton’s a half-century later was live-streamed over the internet. Presidents have found other forums to reach the electorate. Ronald Reagan, who had started out as a sports broadcaster in Iowa, adapted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats and delivered weekly radio addresses, which under Barack Obama went out over YouTube. (Trump has done away with them entirely.)

Obama was in many ways a pioneer in using 21st-century communications technology to its maximum advantage, and in the course of doing so, bypassing traditional means of communication that were once considered de rigeur. As the 2008 election headed into its final stretch, one Obama campaign official noted that the Democratic standard-bearer was going to win without ever once having spoken to the editorial board of the Washington Post. While he was president, Obama built his Twitter following to tens of millions—but did only one Oval Office interview with the Washington Post’s chief White House correspondent Scott Wilson. As Wilson noted in one speech, his personal contact with the president was limited to speaking with Obama occasionally when he popped back into the press cabin on Air Force One and attending a few small, off-the-record lunches with a handful of other White House reporters. But Wilson noted that the American people were hearing from Obama constantly and without a filter—not only on Twitter, but through official websites, YouTube, and Google+ hangouts. In his campaign to boost enrollment under the Affordable Care Act, Obama gave an interview to comic actor Zach Galifianakis on “Between Two Ferns,” a feature on the internet site funnyordie.com. It got more than 50 million views.

At the same time as they are bypassing the national media, some recent presidents have grown more solicitous of local outlets. During Obama’s campaigns, for instance, he and his advisers would largely ignore the national press traveling with them in favor of doing interviews with local television stations and newspapers. That was in part because they knew that the questions they would be asked would be more parochial, rather than yet another round about the attacks at Benghazi, the stalled Middle East peace process, or the ballooning federal deficit.

Just as significant as the ways in which communications technology is reshaping governance are the profound changes that it is bringing about within the news business itself. The internet has created the financial pressure that is driving many organizations—and journalists—out of the business. But it is also generating what could be a new golden era for those that have the resources and ingenuity that it takes to survive and adapt.

First, the bad news about the news. As has been well-documented, the old business model has been broken. Though a newspaper’s content can now reach bigger audiences than ever, thanks to the internet, circulation figures tell a grimly familiar story of decline. In 2018, according to the Pew Research Center, total daily newspaper circulation—meaning the number of people who pay to read the news, either in print or online or both—was down to 28.6 million on weekdays and 30.8 million on Sundays. That was the lowest level since that data began getting compiled in 1940. And of course, with declining subscriptions come lower ad revenues. Most digital ad revenue goes to Facebook and Google, not to news outlets.

A Pew Research Center study in July reported that newsroom employment has dropped by one-quarter since 2008. Where there were roughly 114,000 people working as reporters, editors, photographers, and videographers 11 years ago, there are now only about 86,000 in the newspaper, radio, television, and digital-only newsrooms. Newspapers took the biggest hit, seeing a 47 percent decline over that period, to 38,000 newsroom workers from 71,000. And among newspapers, smaller ones have seen the greatest decline, many of them cutting back their production schedules or going out of business entirely.

How does all of this affect governance? The most obvious way is in a diminishing of the watchdog role that journalists have traditionally played. You see this most dramatically in the shrinking number of journalists keeping an eye on statehouses and local governments across the country. In some places, foundation-funded and for-profit digital news organizations have tried to fill part of the gap, and many are doing terrific work. But they cannot compensate for the loss of resources that traditionally have been devoted to holding local and state-level officials accountable. In Washington, you also see it in the House and Senate press galleries, where there are far fewer regional newspapers assigning reporters to focus on the doings of their state and local congressional delegations. These Washington reporters were among the first to go when their newspapers’ budgets got squeezed.

Again, figures compiled by Pew tell the story. In 2009, the press gallery roster had 125 accredited reporters covering Washington for local daily newspapers in 33 states; five years later, there were 111 reporters working for papers in 29 states. Often, these reporters have seen and uncovered things that wire services and national outlets miss. For instance, in 2005, the staffs of Copley News Service and the San Diego Union-Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting on national affairs in recognition of their coverage of the bribe-taking that sent a local congressman, former Rep. Randy Cunningham, to prison.

The diminishment of local journalism affects governance in other ways. A study published in November 2018 by the Oxford Academic Journal of Communication found that communities where newspapers have closed have tended to become more polarized politically. In the past, voters often viewed local issues through a nonpartisan lens, and were able to forge alliances over the common ground of their regional needs. With less information about local issues, voters become less interested in them and begin to see all politics reflected through their national party ideology.

The study documented 110 newspaper closures between 2009 and 2012 and discovered that split-ticket voting declined in the areas once served by those papers. Its researchers—Matthew P. Hitt of Colorado State University, Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University, and Joshua P. Darr of Louisiana State University—later wrote of their findings in Scientific American. “As local newspapers disappear, citizens increasingly rely on national sources of political information, which emphasizes competition and conflict between the parties,” they noted. “Local newspapers, by contrast, serve as a central source of shared information, setting a common agenda. Readers of local newspapers feel more attached to their communities.” 

Another place citizens turn is social media. According to Pew, about two-thirds of American adults get at least some of their news there, even as they worry that not everything they are reading is factual. Americans’ increasing reliance on social media also contributes to polarization, because their news feeds often become “echo chambers,” in which they are shown content that reinforces what an algorithm has figured out are their existing beliefs.

For larger outlets, such as the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal, the outlook has not been so gloomy. That is because they have the resources, the national reputations, and the readership base that it takes to reinvent themselves for a world in which more and more people prefer to get their news online, whether through websites, apps or social media—a trend that is being led by young people, and therefore represents the future of the news business.

The Washington Post newsroom today bears almost no resemblance to the one I saw on my first day as a Post reporter in May 2010, which really doesn’t seem like it was such a long time ago. It helps, of course, to have the deep pockets of an owner who happens to be the richest man in the world. Since Amazon owner Jeff Bezos purchased the Post in 2013, the newsroom has grown by more than 250 people. Almost half the 900 or so people who work there now have been hired since Bezos purchased the newspaper from the Graham family, which acquired it at a bankruptcy sale in 1933. (Worth noting here: The Post is not part of Amazon, despite President Trump’s constant statements that we are.)

And the expansion continues. Just this year, 10 new staff positions were created to do investigative journalism in such areas as sports, the environment, and international coverage; 11 new reporters are being brought aboard to cover technology; and the newspaper is dramatically expanding its foreign staff. But Bezos has made it clear from the outset that the Washington Post is not a charitable endeavor on his part; while he has the capital to give the newspaper what he calls a “long runway,” it is a business endeavor. The Post has turned a profit in each of the past three years.

All of these resources have allowed us to harness technology as a reporting tool in ways that it was never used before. For instance, the Post won the Pulitzer for national reporting in 2016 by building a database containing the details of 990 fatal police shootings that had occurred across the nation the previous year, and then unleashing a team of reporters, editors, researchers, photographers, and graphic artists to find and illustrate patterns in law enforcement. This required using tools that did not exist for journalists even a decade ago.

Technology also provides us an opportunity to put our journalism in front of a vastly bigger audience. We have adjusted our own newsroom metabolism to that of our digital audience. The “news cycle” as we used to think of it no longer exists. In the early years of the internet era, newspapers were still planning their coverage around the next day’s print edition. Editors would hold a meeting late in the afternoon, where they would decide which stories were running and where they would be placed in the paper. That meant the flow of copy was pretty rigid: Reporters sent their stories to editors between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., and it posted online around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.—when most readers were asleep or headed there.

The current system is built around the way our readers actually consume the news online. We know that people start reading as soon as they wake up, and that traffic rises steadily through the lunch hour, so we want to have fresh stories ready for them to read and share. That’s known as “winning the morning,” or dominating the conversation that is happening on television and radio and online. We continue to publish stories throughout the day, knowing that people will be reading over lunch and when they get home in the evening. (We also know something their bosses may not: Many of them are reading at work.)  Foreign stories are often published around 3 a.m., so we can catch readers overseas. And our work is usually accompanied by a video produced in-house, separate headlines for the story itself and the home page, and clickable links for sharing it on social media. If a story isn’t getting as much traffic as the editors think it merits, they will experiment with different headlines to draw in more readers.

One of the biggest changes is the fact that we simply no longer wait for the print edition to publish a story. The big features and enterprise projects that continue to dominate the Sunday paper are often published online as early as Wednesday or Thursday. All of the major outlets are also eager to be the first to put out an “alert” when a big story breaks, because they know that being even a few seconds ahead of the competition can yield a big advantage in the number of readers who click on their story instead of one of the others that are sure to come flooding in.

This, too, has an effect on governance. Policymakers and politicians have also had to adjust to a world without a news cycle. Sure, there is still the old tendency to announce bad news late on a Friday, in hopes that it will not get as much attention. But those we cover know they have to jump on a story the second it hits the web, scrutinizing it for errors or misstatements in hopes that there can be changes made before a piece goes into wide circulation. Often, an official who declined to return a reporter’s phone call will suddenly become very eager to provide a comment that might still get squeezed into a report.

As dramatic as all this has been, it is only the opening chapter of a story that is still unfolding—for both the leaders in government and the news media that covers them. Five years from now, all of these developments that have both flummoxed and awed us might seem as quaint as the coin-operated news box that used to sit on nearly every corner in every city. It is exciting and a little scary to imagine what lies beyond the next turn in the road. One thing we can count on, however, is that change will continue to happen. Where it takes us may be the biggest story of all.

 

Karen Tumulty is a political columnist for the Washington Post, where she has worked since 2010. She received the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting in her previous role as a national political correspondent for the paper. She previously worked at Time, including as a White House correspondent, and at the Los Angeles Times.