Would journalists be better if they worked on campaigns?

Would it be OK if journalists also worked on political campaigns?

It’s the suggestion of Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, who writes in Slate today that political reporters don’t know enough about the inner workings of political campaigns. So he’s recommending news organizations send their reporters to work on some.

What if journalists actually developed a working knowledge of those mechanics and the tools campaigns used to engineer them? It doesn’t take much to dramatically increase your base of knowledge about voter-contact tactics, which often reveal more about a campaign’s thinking about where its votes will come from than the latest Web ad or polling memo released by a communications department. A lot of media have written about the Obama campaign’s new mobile canvassing app, but few have asked a central question about its underlying purpose: Why is the Obama campaign using it to send existing volunteers to recruit other volunteers instead of hunting for new supporters?

So a modest proposal: newsrooms develop a version of a study-abroad program, placing their reporters in campaign field offices for a month during the summer of an election season. It’s time that they see the place where campaigns interact with real people, by asking the questions on phone-bank scripts, entering the answers into databases, then seeing how that information shapes decisions about which voters to call or visit next. (Full disclosure: I volunteered for Democratic candidates in New York starting when I was 12, but have not worked in campaigns since I first got involved in journalism.) My guess is that journalists who spent even a few weeks in this world would pose wildly different questions the next time they sat down with Jim Messina or Stuart Stevens.

He’s ready for the objections of you news purists, too:

The media have become so fixated on neutrality that we have become detached not only from the ideologies and philosophies of the people we cover, but their methods, too. Many have noted that the turn toward rigorously empirical campaigning looks a lot like the one that has changed baseball over the last decade, as described in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. But political reporters are in even worse shape than the sports press was. Baseball beat writers may have had trouble appreciating and assessing the quantitative revolution taking place in front offices because they lacked the requisite statistical expertise. But political reporters are actually far more poorly positioned to document similar transformation in our fields. Nearly everyone who writes about baseball has held a bat and a glove at some point, and some–no matter how old or physically unfit they may be now–still play catch, dabble on a softball team, or coach Little League. The first step toward appreciating why a general manager might prize a statistic like a pitcher’s WHIP is understanding what it takes to throw a baseball 60 feet, or the choices a batter faces at the other end.

He misses on that one. Knowing how to throw a baseball 60 feet does absolutely nothing to enhance one’s understanding and application of WHIP in baseball.

  • BJ

    Your both right knowing how to throw 60 feet is good and it doesn’t enhance understanding of WHIP. Throwing it 60 feet 6 inches NOW you understand everything. 🙂

    But I think the take that you need to do field work is a good one. But he did seem to mix strategy and tactic’s a little. A good campaign will change tactic’s a lot (see Obama 2008 campaign) but not strategy (also see Obama 2008 campaign). It’s is hard for people to remember how many things failed for Obama in 2008, because the strategy worked. They dumped tactic after tactic.

    I tell potential candidates that if they haven’t volunteered on a campaign at the field level to do so before they run.

  • MikeB

    The sentiment is right. Political reporters are not adequately covering campaigns. Too much work on relaying polished talking points and horse race stories. Readers go elsewhere to fill in the gaps.

    Slice up the duties according to subject matter. Have finance/economics reporters cover the finance/economics proposals, etc. Campaigns take advantage of reporters’ lack of policy expertise.

    Release the reporters from the false god of objectivity. Use their judgement and experience to tell what is actually happening in these campaigns and races.

    Stay off the campaign buses and planes. Hearing the same speech over and over does not add to the story. Get out and cover from a distance.

  • Bob Collins

    But that’s not at all what he’s writing. It seems to me he’s encouraging MORE coverage of the horse race by understanding how the game is played.

  • BJ

    I think he is talking about coverage of the horse race for sure, but also to make sure your covering the “real” horse race. Not the one the campaigns are telling you is going on.

    “Readers go elsewhere to fill in the gaps.” Where might that be. Most people don’t even read the paper or listen to the news coverage of political campaigns.

  • MikeB

    Reporting on the mechanics of how a campaign identifies voters, message strategies, fund raising techniques, is a good idea but I would not classify it as horse race type coverage. It’s how the sausage is made. Also, it is confidential info and Michael Lewis type access wouldn’t be granted.

    Obama is investing in a strong ground game. Romney is investing in an ad campaign. We see 2 strategies at work but we won’t see the definitive stories on what worked and what didn’t until after the election.

  • Bob Collins

    I’m going to be disappointed if now you’re all telling me Matt Taibbi doesn’t know anything about campaigns.