Chelsea Clinton visited the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos to campaign for her mother, Hillary Clinton. After speaking to a group of people inside the courthouse, Chelsea answered questions from the crowd and took pictures with people before leaving. Photo by Laura Skelding/Austin American-Statesman.
Recently, I was tasked with interviewing George McGovern, the former South Dakota senator and Democratic presidential candidate, to figure out whether he saw similarities between his candidacy in 1972 and Senator Barack Obama’s. The article was meant to be part of a broader examination as to why, seemingly, Obama has been having trouble wooing the white working-class vote. But it quickly became an illustrative example of some of the unique opportunities and journalistic challenges that I have routinely come to face as a political reporter for The Huffington Post.
The morning before the interview, I received a phone call from my mother, a devout Democrat and unrepentant McGovernite. “Please Sam,” she begged me, “tell him that what he did in 1972 changed my life and that your father and I still love him.”
“I don’t know how appropriate that would be,” I replied.
The subtext wasn’t entirely lost: What, exactly, did McGovern do in 1972 that still resonated with my mother 36 years later? Surely I should have known this before talking with this man. So I researched his campaign, talked to people in the know, and in the process discovered that the similarities between Obama and McGovern extended well beyond their youthful appeal. Each, for example, faced a certain level of establishment opposition to his candidacy. Both, moreover, had process challenges that threatened to derail their electoral hopes (McGovern had his primary victory in California contested by Democratic opponents; Obama has Clinton calling for re-votes or the counting of the unofficial Florida and Michigan primaries).
Historical tidbits like these were not, to be sure, journalistically essential. My McGovern article was going forward with or without the California anecdote. But knowing these things provided color and context and a sense of history that, at least on a superficial level, would make the piece more comprehensive, honest and entertaining.
My experience with this story struck a chord, not simply because I felt embarrassed to have a less than full grasp of political history, but because it was a clear example of where journalism — at least the kind that I do — has its unbelievable benefits and all too evident shortcomings.
The Political Impact of Words
Writing for The Huffington Post during this election cycle has been an unmitigated process of data searches, interview requests, editorial insights, e-mail exchanges, and ultimately deadline-influenced pieces. It would be inaccurate to call this “fast-paced” because, in actuality, there is no pace. It is continuous, with story angles presenting themselves at nondetermined intervals. When your attention is demanded, you give it. When you have a spare moment, you edit — and breathe.
In the past eight months I have authored more than 250 posts and articles. Some of these have been long-researched investigative pieces on topics ranging from e-mails that John McCain kept hidden from his report on disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to a look at the $800,000 Bill Clinton earned from speaking fees from pro-trade groups in Colombia. Others have been as small as 300-word write-ups of tirades thrown by MSNBC commentators over their treatment by the Clinton campaign’s press office.
It has been immensely gratifying and, at times, incredibly ego-stroking (“Yes, I’ll take that call with John Kerry”). But it has also been a bit humbling at times to be part of an online news organization and to realize that what gets published — and even the words we choose — can have the power to affect the political dialogue.
Take, for example, the days leading up to the Pennsylvania primary. On a late Friday afternoon, Huffington Post’s Off the Bus published a report about the private San Francisco fundraiser where Obama uttered his now famous “bitter” line about the propensity of small-town voters to “cling to guns or religion” and anti-immigration sentiment under economic duress. Several days later, we reported that Senator Clinton, too, had once stereotyped white working-class voters, telling her husband, in 1995, to “screw” Reagan Democrats who had undermined the Democratic Party in the 1994 elections. Days after that story, we had yet another scoop. This time, an audiotape of Clinton at a private fundraiser of her own, criticizing democratic activists for her defeats in caucuses and for holding foreign policy beliefs that she disagreed with. In each case, debate and curiosity was generated from our articles.
Yet, despite their impact, there was something missing from each of these stories: nuance and context. What was the basis for Obama’s interpretation of the ailments of small-town America? Could the Democratic Party pursue a more progressive agenda without Reagan Democrats? What had catalyzed the rift between Democratic activists and Clinton, the candidate once deemed the Democratic standard-bearer?
Such questions deserve as much scrutiny and enthusiasm as was given to the circumstances that generated them. But such questions went largely unaddressed, at least in the original pieces. Part of the problem — as my McGovern interview demonstrated — has to do with a lack of keen understanding (or self-confidence) in the subject matter. As a young reporter (like many of my colleagues are), I’ve studied and read a fair amount of political history. But what I’ve come to appreciate is that the experience of the more seasoned, veteran journalist usually trumps academic knowledge when it comes to political reporting.
Mainly, however, the issue is one of time. In online reporting, news breaks and context is often added later. It is not, as cynics of online news reporting argue, a wholly negative paradigm. Getting more information, faster and from a variety of outlets and ideological angles, serves a profound purpose in this political process. The award-winning political Web site Talking Points Memo (TPM), for instance, did not expose the scandal surrounding the firing of U.S. attorneys in one lengthy exposé. Instead, disclosures happened in a series of discoveries, reports and memo leaks, many of which came to reporters at TPM as the initial stories were published on it.
But there are shortcomings to Internet-based political journalism as well. And it is primarily a function of reporters settling for a timely article rather than a complete one. It is an avoidable problem. There are no concrete space limitations to the Web as there are in the print world. More flexible deadlines, moreover, allow for Internet reporters to conduct more thorough research. And the ability to update stories with links and e-mail exchanges should allow for more information and sourcing. All these are important steps to commit to taking, not simply because readers and viewers demand it, but because — as my preparation for the McGovern interview showed — it makes our work a clearly superior product.
Sam Stein, a political reporter with The Huffington Post, is based in Washington, D.C..