NBC’s Chuck Todd slams “tidbit journalism” – Is he right?

In light of yesterday’s highly publicized “Etch a Sketch” gaffe by top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, NBC reporter/analyst Chuck Todd angrily weighs in on what he calls “tidbit journalism” (via MediaGazer):

On this morning’s MSNBC “The Daily Rundown” host Chuck Todd went after what he and his panel dubbed “tidbit” journalism. Their repugnance was high after yesterday’s Etch a Sketch remark from a top Mitt Romney campaign advisor that, they joked angrily, “went viral.”

Todd grumbled over the fact that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush endorsement of Romney was buried as the result of Romney’s own aide’s gaffe and the state of journalism today. “I’ve been torn and twisted about this story,” said Todd, clearly disturbed. “It is sort of striking how this cycle more than any other is nothing but the gaffe police.”

Todd noted that there is an “entire enterprise” built by the Republican wing of journalism such as Breitbart.com and also the Democratic arena such as ThinkProgress. “This is what they do, they look for the moment that they think they gotcha,” he said.

AP‘s Liz Sidota, on the panel, jumped in with comparable disgust. “This is all about changing the environment in media and in politics and the nexus of the two,” she said. “It’s all about tidbit journalism, right? It’s all about the little bits that make their way onto YouTube or handhelds.”

Todd chimed in sarcastically, “And it goes VIRAL and it’s the moment.”

Sidota continued, “People lose sight of the other stuff that happened yesterday because everyone was so enamored by the gaffe machine and the gaffe police. I think it really actually is detrimental to political journalism in the long run.”

She blamed the media, political operatives and changes in the Internet. They agreed it’s a vicious cycle. “We could bash us, but we’re not victimless,” said Todd. “At the same time look at what Santorum and Newt did – they grabbed onto it and ran.”

MediaSidota is more right than Todd on this in that the mainstream media are indeed not blameless when it comes to this style of “journalism.” In fact, they essentially invented “tidbit journalism” – what I call “gotcha journalism” – decades ago by deliberately asking questions they know will get a rise out of public officials, politicos, and their various and assorted media  handlers.  And if they weren’t asking “let me get ya in corner” questions, they were highlighting and sensationalizing gaffes and other slip ups from famous figures that otherwise would have gone unnoticed by the masses. Long before Twitter, Facebook, even the Internet, there were “gotcha” journalists, news outlets, and even columnists whose success levels rose and fell based on the “controversies” they could generate off a single quote or short video segment.   Granted, some well-known public figures can do themselves no favors without any help from the media, but rest assured – especially in this day and age with “InstaNews” being the only way many people get their information – there’s no question that once the MSM does get involved the “offender” goes into backtracking mode fast, because they don’t want whatever was said/done/caught on tape to negatively impact their reputations and/or careers.  Of course, even then oftentimes it is too late to correct or “smooth over” the damage done.

Fishbowl DC quoted a “social media guru” whose analysis of “tidbit journalism” was mostly spot-on:

Social media guru Brad Phillips, a.k.a. Mr. Media Training, told FishbowlDC that tidbit journalism isn’t going away anytime soon — in fact, he said, it’s only going to intensify. “There’s nothing new about the media covering gaffes – George Romney, Mitt’s father, saw his own presidential campaign derailed in 1968 after telling an interviewer that American generals ‘brainwashed’ him in Vietnam.

“But what has changed is the sheer number of outlets that cover these gaffes, including millions of individual Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. These mini moments help bloggers and website editors boost their website traffic and help cable news editors fill the 24-hour clock, giving them every incentive to cover these stories en masse.  That trend toward ‘tidbit’ journalism is only going to intensify, especially because the predominant mainstream media bias today isn’t ideological, but rather toward inexpensive, dramatic, tawdry, and visually compelling stories.”

I disagree with him on whether or not the MSM is in fact “ideological” – it’s clear they are – but he’s right in that they’re also in it for the money, publicity, recognition, etc.  The media, in effect, created the “gotcha” monster selling point – and now political operatives run with it for the same reasons the media does, with the added possible benefit of “political gain.”  Sometimes for better, when the “gotcha” moment is an accurate portrayal of the person/situation, and sometimes for worse, when the “gotcha moment” is presented out of context.

Ideally, even in the age of “gotcha journalism”, you’d hope that even the casual news reader/listener would be able to discern – after careful consideration and a review of what was said/done in context – whether or not the “gotcha” even matters, and if it does is it significant enough in nature to impact their view of the “offender”?  But unfortunately these days people have short attention spans and if the headline/Tweet is shocking more often or not they’ll fall for it without further review – or worse, generate their own spin off of it.  I can’t tell you how often I hear people say something about this or that politician or celeb or other public figure that they’ve recently heard/read about in the news, something that is at best misleading, at worst a lie, and when you ask them where they heard/read about it, they’ll say “On CNN’s news ticker” or “MSN’s homepage.”  Did they READ the story … and from varied sources?  No. How many of you have similar stories of things you hear people say about a current “gotcha” moment or other hot story that you feel you need to correct for the record? I suspect ALL of you have.  It’s maddening.

In the case of the Etch A Sketch quote …:

FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.

…. was it really as bad, contextually speaking, as the “anti-Mitts” have been suggesting? CJR’s Brendan Nyhan takes a closer look:

Amid the avalanche of coverage, the more careful reporters and pundits acknowledged the ambiguity of Fehrnstrom’s statement, which did not specify, as The Washington Post‘s Felicia Sonmez put it, “whether he was referring to the dynamics of the campaign or rather to Romney’s positions on the issues.” (Fehrnstrom later tried to clarify that he was referring to the dynamics of the campaign changing in the general election.) Politico’s Alexander Burns, for instance, pointed out that “Fehrnstrom’s language wasn’t quite so precise and it was unclear whether the Etch A Sketch was supposed to represent the 2012 political landscape or the candidate for which he works.”

Similarly, TPM’s Benjy Sarlin and Evan McMorris-Santoro wrote that “[t]he ‘Etch-A-Sketch’ line is at least somewhat ambiguous. Fehrnstrom has said in previous interviews that the general election is a ‘reset button,’ referring more to the notion that Romney will be able to confront the president without having to fend off a bunch of damaging attacks from his rivals at all times.” The American Prospect‘s Paul Waldman was more direct: “Does anyone really believe that a top Romney aide was saying that Romney was going to change his positions for the general election? Of course not. From a strategic point of view, a wiping of the slate between the primary and general election campaigns is not only what most presidential campaigns want, it’s what most of them actually do.”

To erase this ambiguity, though, other reporters and pundits constructed paraphrases of Fehrnstrom that directly echoed the dominant narrative about Romney. For instance, the AP’s David Espo described Fehrnstrom’s statement as “an astonishing admission Wednesday by one of Romney’s top aides” that his “primary-season policy positions may be no more lasting than squiggles on a child’s Etch A Sketch drawing toy.” Similarly, TPM’s Josh Marshall claimed that Romney’s “top aide said voters’ minds were like an Etch-a-Sketch: Mitt could reposition back to the center in time for the general election with little damage from the primaries. In other words, you just repaint the picture. No one remembers.”  […]

Even bigger, do “gotcha moments” impact elections? Nyhan suggests that they don’t:

[…] when George Washington University political scientist John Sides looked at five events from the 2008 campaign identified by the journalists Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson in their book The Battle for America as especially significant, he found they had “basically had no impact on voters nationwide.” Likewise, a comprehensive review of pre-election trial heat polls by the political scientists Christopher Wlezien and Robert S. Erickson (gated) found that “During the early campaign—roughly the 100 days preceding the late-summer conventions—campaign shocks are large but temporary; news about the campaign affects voters but is eventually forgotten and thus has little impact on the final outcome.”

We’re currently 158 days from the Republican convention, and “Etch a Sketch-gate” will likely prove to be just as inconsequential. By the time the general election rolls around, the incident will most likely be forgotten. And even if it remains salient, it’s unlikely to change voters’ minds since, as Cillizza concedes, “How you view the Etch a Sketch incident…depends in large part on how you view Romney.” Better to rethink how you view the “freak show” aspect of the political press instead.

Extremely well-said.


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