by Brad Jacobson
Greg Mitchell, award-winning author and editor of the news industry trade magazine Editor & Publisher, brings four decades of journalism experience to his incisive media analyses in his E&P column “Pressing Issues” and on The Huffington Post. He was on the ground covering the bloody 1968 Democratic National Convention and, in the 1970s, became the senior editor of the legendary rock/political magazine Crawdaddy, where he helped write and publish the first magazine article about Bruce Springsteen.
Mitchell went on to author nine non-fiction books, on topics ranging from classic American campaigns (The Campaign of the Century and Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady) to how the U.S. government molded public opinion after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Hiroshima in America) to an exploration of capital punishment in America (Who Owns Death?). More recently, Mitchell’s book So Wrong for So Long — hailed by Bill Moyers, Arianna Huffington and Glenn Greenwald — explored the media’s failure to ask the right questions in the lead-up and first years of the Iraq War. (Springsteen, his friend now of 36 years, wrote the preface.)
His new book, Why Obama Won, is culled from his near daily analysis of the historic 2008 campaign and its aftermath while writing for E&P, The Huffington Post and Daily Kos. In Mitchell’s words: “[It] focuses on new media vs. old media, grassroots vs. mainstream, and all of the controversies, from Jeremiah the Preacher to Joe the Plumber. It’s also a window on the future.” Commenting on the book, Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News and author of the excellent news blog Attytood, wrote: “It really raises the question of how the 2008 campaign might have played out in an earlier era, before private citizens and small publications had the ability to get video and sound bites out to millions of people.”
Greg recently spoke with MediaBloodhound from his Lower East Side Manhattan office at E&P. In addition to the 2008 campaign, topics ranged from the dire state of the newspaper industry and its “dirty secret” to the impact of the U.S. media’s censorship of graphic war images to whether Twitter and Sarah Palin will go the way of the pet rock.
The following is an edited transcript of our interview.
MediaBloodhound: A recent Pew Research Center survey seems to prove the thesis of your new book Why Obama Won. It found that more than half of American voters used the Internet for election news and that the Internet is now equal to newspapers and roughly twice as important as radio as a source of election news and information. What was your reaction when you read this?
Greg Mitchell: [laughs] Well, I wasn’t surprised of course. I follow things very carefully on the web and have for years. And I would imagine that even since the Pew survey, which I think was conducted at the end of last year, the trend has only increased and will increase. The details of the Pew survey breaks it down how Obama’s backers used the web two times as much or more than McCain’s people in all sorts of ways, from just texting for a rally to donating money to posting videos to using Facebook, MySpace and so forth. It’s just straight down the line. Every possible way that the web could’ve been used, the Obama backers did. So I think during the campaign there was a lot of attention to the more public and grandiose uses of the web — celebrity use of YouTube videos, regular reports of Obama’s fundraising. So people certainly got the idea that this was going on. But I think the Pew survey and other things showed that, just on a day-to-day basis, what you didn’t see in the big stories in the press were these millions or tens of millions of people involved in the campaign who every day were texting and Facebooking and Twittering and everything else. And it’s good to see that being recognized now.
MediaBloodhound: Why do you think the McCain camp appeared to be so out of touch with this technology? It seemed like it was more than just a generational thing.
Greg Mitchell: Well, you know, McCain made national news when he went on Twitter. This was like a shot heard round the world — a Tweet heard round the world — McCain actually doing something like that. So it shows how out of it they were.
But to be fair, they did try. They had their websites and they had their videos and everything else. It’s just that they were very late to the game. They were kind of lame to the game. You know, their audience just is not too hip to all these things. In some ways there wasn’t that much they could do. A lot of the McCain backers would not be so comfortable with some of these things. But as we saw after the election, before the Republicans sort of went totally bonkers against Obama once he became president. There was a period after the election when there was some honest self-reflection among Republican leaders and activists. Before it turned into non-stop Obama bashing, they did have a few weeks after their embarrassing defeat in the congressional elections and the White House where the really did honestly say, “OK, we want to win. Forget about politics or ideology or how bad Obama is. Let’s just look at how we’re going to come back to power.”
They did have a few weeks where they were looking at these things and over and over different people would say, “We have to take better advantage of the web tools or we’re never going to make it if we don’t use them in a better way.” And, in fact, it’s way overblown. But there was talk that at least in the “Teabagging” [anti-tax protests] they did for local events, they did make use of Twitter. And there was a sense that, maybe even because it’s short and simple, I don’t know, that Twitter was going to be the GOP tool, just like blogs and Facebook became Democrat tools. That Twitter was going to be a kind of a GOP, far-right organizing tool. But I think that does come from a certain determination to make use of these things.
MediaBloodhound: What did you think of the media coverage of the anti-tax tea parties?
Greg Mitchell: Most amazing was that they tended to treat it like protests in the past. There have been national abortion rights protests and immigration rights protests and of course anti-war protests and everything spread out around the country. But never, that I’m aware of, has there ever been protests like this that were essentially promoted by a major news organization, that is Fox, who were actually promoting it, not just saying we’re going to cover this. And so it was almost like the mainstream media was afraid to sort of say, “Look, this is not just grassrootsy or even sponsored by a national organization.” It was also promoted by talk radio and promoted by the leading cable news network, which makes it a completely different thing than local activists who want to speak out. They’re going to a rally to see Glenn Beck. It’s a whole different thing. So I just thought the coverage should have noted that this was not your average grassrootsy thing in any way.
MediaBloodhound: Speaking of Twitter, you recently joined. What’s your view of it so far? And do you see it as more than a passing fad?
Greg Mitchell: I think Twitter is probably here to stay. For myself, I find it just useful for news tips and making use of scoops and things that I see out there, links that people have, and the ability to put new E&P links up there that people follow. So it’s partly publicity for E&P, getting my own work out there and getting quickly the newsbreaks from others. Now if it was just a matter of people talking about what movies they liked or, you know, best restaurants in Brooklyn…you know, how about those Yankees? There are too many other things to do. But, for example, I don’t do anything with Facebook. I’m enrolled in Facebook and LinkedIn and MySpace but I do absolutely nothing with them because I’m just not interested in networking so much. But with Twitter, I see a real news function to it. So that’s why I’m a fan at the present time.
MediaBloodhound: Your book has so many examples of Beltway talking heads and reporters who got the campaign completely wrong or floated the most embarrassingly absurd observations. In your previous book, “So Wrong for So Long,” you detail the mainstream media’s failure to ask the right questions in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Aside from Judy Miller, I can’t think of another mainstream reporter or pundit whose reputation suffered as a consequence. And the same could be said about those who flubbed the 2008 election. Why do you think there’s always a seat back at the table for these people?
Greg Mitchell: I don’t take the election as seriously as the war because the news coverage of the war led to a terrible six years of war for the country. With the election, a lot of people were wrong, but the end result was Obama got elected. But I think in any election there’s plenty of punditry that’s wrong. It’s just a matter of whether the outcome of the election was in some ways a reflection of the declining value and respect that these people in general are held. Even the people who kind of got it right, as a class, the Beltway pundits and campaign reporters have been deplanted now by online commentators and online coverage or even just viral things that people see and read about. So I think it’s more of that. I suppose a positive result is that kind of insidey Washington coverage and those people have vastly declined in the respect that they’re given now by people as a whole. People make up their minds based on other things and not so much what these pundits and editorial pages say.
MediaBloodhound: In your book, you also touch on the ABC News primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous were roundly and rightfully panned, even by some old media journalists. What impact, if any, do you think that had on the remainder of the debates or old media journalists’ coverage of the rest of the campaign season?
Greg Mitchell: Well, I thought the debates were pretty bad in the fall, too. So it wasn’t like there was a sense at the end of the primaries that the media had not done a good job so in the fall they really got their act together. It is quite the opposite. But again, I think that the mockery that many people felt or expressed for some of these mainstream journalists who were handling the debates in the fall…again, it’s another nail in the coffin. These people have millions of dollars and weeks to prepare for these debates. When Tom Brokaw was handling the final debate, there was all this hype about, “We’ve got 100,000 questions we’re sending to our panel of experts and we’re picking the twelve best questions.” And then the questions were not only mainly weak but some of them were even repeats from previous debates. I just sort of shook my head and said, “This is the best they can do?” We’re supposed to have this deep respect for the networks and all the venerable people who work there, when it seems like the staff of The Daily Show might’ve been able to put together better questions in a week.
MediaBloodhound: Or a day.
Greg Mitchell: I think that all feeds into it. It was a disastrous year for mainstream coverage and TV coverage of the election because they have such a high profile around the debates and the debates were so weak. I mentioned in the book that you could almost boil down the year to this one factor. In the fall debates, including the Vice Presidential Debate…normally these debates are very influential. They’re held and the mainstream pundits would weigh in for a few days or a week and they’d kick around who’s got the momentum and who did well and who exceeded expectations and who flubbed and whose makeup looked bad and who sighed and everything else. And then after a week or two, there might be a poll confirming. But the punditry for a solid week or more would hold sway and help push the polls that eventually came out.
This year, you had the same thing happen. The debates ended, all the pundits came on TV and nine times out of ten they would say, “Well, you know, McCain did better than expectations,” or, “It was a draw and this wasn’t going to help either candidate,” or, “Palin did better than expected. It’s probably going to boost McCain.” Now in the old days, that line would’ve had its own momentum for another week or two. But what happened this year was you had online commentators coming on right away on the web not only pointing to errors and misstatements but talking about how their candidate actually won. But more than that, you had the focus groups that were set up and instant polls were taken that showed within half an hour of the end of the debate that in all four cases the Democrat actually won easily, overwhelmingly. So the pundits were kind of left with egg on their face.
And that’s an incredible shift from past years, a total, what you might call, emasculation of the pundits because not only were they unable to exert their usual influence but in fact their statements were shown to be laughable within half an hour or hour of the end of the debates. And then, of course, those results were carried instantly in all forms of electronic media. So that by the time people went to bed that night or eight o’clock the following morning, most of them knew that something different had happened. That didn’t win the election for Obama. But in a normal year, the momentum that would’ve been asserted by the pundits for McCain’s and Palin’s performance would’ve boosted them in the polls no doubt and you might’ve come into Election Day in kind of a toss-up situation just from the fact of how the debates might’ve been spun.
MediaBloodhound: Without the Internet, the rise of the Internet, and how much influence it had in to the 2008 election, do you think that Obama would’ve won in the old days, pre-Internet?
Greg Mitchell: If he got the nomination, I think he probably would’ve won in November. But I don’t think he would’ve beaten Hillary Clinton. So if you want to say, “Would Obama have become elected president eight years ago or sixteen years ago?” I would say no because he wouldn’t have gotten past Hillary. So that was the key. Once he’d gotten past Hillary, it certainly was not determined that he would win, but McCain was a much easier opponent in many ways. And Obama’s web advantage was in place and it carried through to the end. But I don’t think he would’ve gotten past Hillary without the twelve solid months of web advantage he had over her.
MediaBloodhound: You also discussed in your book William Kristol’s Daily Show appearance during the presidential campaign, when Jon Stewart got him to admit that Obama wasn’t a radical and would probably be a “conventional president.” You point out that Stewart then asked Kristol why he and McCain continued to call Obama a dangerous radical if they didn’t mean it. Do you see the symbiosis between this conversation and the one Stewart had with Jim Cramer?
Greg Mitchell: [laughs] I think Stewart does have a certain boiling point, where he tolerates a lot and he’s very friendly to many people who come on whom he probably disagrees with politically. So it’s kind of rare when this happens, but occasionally he just goes off on someone because he thinks their statements or what they’ve done is so egregious.
MediaBloodhound: When he does get fed up he tends to narrow it down to this idea — and it was the same when he potentially put the kibosh on the Crossfire show — that everything’s a game to these people. And the way he spoke to Kristol in the scene you point out seemed to me very similar to why he was so angry with Jim Cramer: the whole idea that these guys are just playing roles, that they’re not saying what they really think.
Greg Mitchell: That’s a good point. I don’t know how far I would take that — Kristol versus Kramer. But there’s a feeling that people don’t necessarily totally believe what they’re saying and they’re kind of song and dance men. So it’s interesting to connect that to Kristol. Some people at least believe he certainly does believe what he’s saying. But I feel that the press had performed so poorly in the two major crises of our time, the Iraq War and the economic collapse, leading up to them. And they’re such overwhelmingly horrible problems. I’m not a big press basher automatically. Going back for all my decades, I tend to more likely defend the press than attack it. But to fail so miserably with these two gigantic problems…I mean the press fails all the time. You could take it with a grain of salt and just sort of say, “Yeah, they make mistakes. They do good work. They do bad work.” You know, when it’s just, “You didn’t cover a certain corruption scandal,” or, “You got it wrong about some big public official you went after,” or whatever. All the various ways the press screws up.
But when you screw up on a massive scale on a massive problem, it’s a real different case. And using those two examples – Bill Kristol and Jim Cramer – I think Stewart is probably like me in the sense that he can take a lot in stride but when the crisis is so serious and you have kind of the perpetrators there next to you, it gets a rise out of you. So I think that’s the difference. And it’s good that he makes a distinction between your day-to-day screw-ups versus when someone who has contributed to actively promoting a crisis that’s affecting tens of millions or hundreds of millions of people.
MediaBloodhound: You just alluded to how you stand in a unique position. You’re a media critic who levels a great deal of criticism on mainstream reporting yet someone who’s also the editor of Editor & Publisher, a mainstream publication about the news industry. Do you find that a somewhat awkward position to be in? Or is it quite the opposite: do you feel that this vantage point better informs your observations of the media?
Greg Mitchell: Well, I certainly pay close attention to both worlds, so I suppose that helps. I think it probably helps a little bit more in terms of credibility, that people perceive I have more credibility than some people simply because I’m the editor of a venerable magazine. But since I became editor here, it really was right when the run-up to the Iraq War was starting. So I feel like I’ve been in a crisis situation going back to 9/11 and the run-up to Iraq and the economic crisis, one following the other and overlapping. These have not been normal times. So I sort of felt more impetus to speak out or push the envelope.
MediaBloodhound: And have you received any flak from more of your old media colleagues in regards to that?
Greg Mitchell: Uh, I don’t know if it’s flak. I’ve gotten plenty of hate mail and I have plenty of people who disagree with some of the things I do. But, you know, a lot of it is people who’ve been complaining for years about my stance on Iraq. And of course virtually everything I ever wrote turned out to be true, going back six-and-a-half years ago. You just sort of have to take the hate mail in stride.
MediaBloodhound: I guess I was talking about colleagues that you know who are more heavily ensconced in the old media world who felt, you know, “Hey, Greg, what are you doing to us?”
Greg Mitchell: Yeah, some of them. Really not that much. I think most people agreed. Some people aren’t in a position to push the envelope. But I think privately most people see a train wreck and privately agree with you and cheer you on. I’ve gotten many, many — from people I would respect or from people who were actually in the industry versus people who just followed a link that was on Drudge or something — many times more fan mail than critical mail from respected people or real working journalists.
MediaBloodhound: Republicans have a long history of recycling unpopular or even out-and-out feared figures and getting them into the White House. You wrote about one such Republican’s rise in the Senate, Richard Nixon, in your book Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady. Nixon beat his opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, by, among other dirty tricks, red baiting. He was also a prominent figure in the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. Yet all seemed forgotten or forgiven by the majority of Americans who eventually elected him president. Do you see a similar type of Nixonian trajectory for Sarah Palin, or do you think she is a media-created flash-in-the-pan?
Greg Mitchell: Well, I would say she’s a flash in the pan, except that the Republicans could nominate almost anyone. I’m willing to believe anything with the way they’re going. So normally I’d say yes, she was a joke. And one of themes in Why Obama Won was that the media gave her too much credibility. The media too often said, “Oh, she’s really helping McCain,” or, “People love her.” They talked about the enthusiasm at the GOP rallies and that’s fine that there’s enthusiasm at the rallies. But she was turning off more people than she was attracting. Every poll showed this. In the book, I cite polls four days after she was named that already destroyed everything the media was hyping about her — women did not like her, she was not attracting working class people, she was a negative.
The polls showed that from the beginning yet the media for weeks or months continued this line that, “Well, she’s helping, she’s firming the base, she’s bringing more people to McCain.” And this is before Tina Fey and Katie Couric and everything else. So I think the popular perception from the media was that she gave McCain a real shot in the arm and that people loved her and McCain was soaring and then Tina Fey got at her and that reversed things, when the reversal had happened within days of McCain naming her.
MediaBloodhound: But, for example, aside from Barack Obama, Sarah Palin has received more coverage than any other politician since the end of the 2008 election, though maybe a lot of it negative.
Greg Mitchell: But I think that’s partly from the misreading of her popularity. I mean she’s a bizarre and interesting figure, so you’re always going to get more coverage. She’s got this horrible situation with her daughter and her baby and various other things up there, other scandals, all kinds of things surrounding her. So it’s always good copy, but I think it’s partly driven by, “She’s so popular and she could be the nominee.” I haven’t seen all the polls, but I saw a recent poll of Republicans around the country and they were asked, “Who do you favor right now for the nomination?” And she came in fourth or something. So it’s not like polls are showing she’s on the path to the nomination. I just think it’s the continuation of the hype.
MediaBloodhound: And you don’t think eventually that could make people’s minds up for them, the more this hype is played out?
Greg Mitchell: She was never popular. There were always more negatives than positives to her. The negatives have only been accentuated since the campaign. So it’s fine if they want to keep pushing Palin and she winds up getting the nomination and goes down to a record-setting defeat. So be it.
MediaBloodhound: In a recent interview with Rachel Maddow, you said, “Most newspapers are still profitable. That’s sort of the dirty secret.” Can you explain that?
Greg Mitchell: Most newspapers, until a couple of years ago, were one of the most profitable businesses in the country, with regular profit margins of twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five percent. Just enormous profit margins, including Gannett, which usually had about a thirty percent profit margin and they had more papers than anybody. So even two years ago people were talking about newspapers in decline and it was a joke because the only thing that was in decline was that they were starting to suffer from a debt load, expanding too much, shareholders on Wall Street clamoring for higher profits in the era of greed. So it was kind of a joke that newspapers were “plunging.” We just had a graphic a couple of weeks ago showing that during the last quarter of last year, even then, virtually all of the major newspaper companies were profitable, except that instead of twenty or thirty percent, the profits were four to nine percent and there were a couple that were in minus territory.
Now I think that’s changing this quarter. We saw Gannett announce their results and so I think, finally, the first quarter of 2009, it may turn out that the newspaper companies are down to zero or in minus territory. But literally until the past couple of months, you could honestly say that, despite the reputation, the vast, vast majority of newspapers were profitable. But they have a big debt now and…it’s just the writing on the wall. If the Internet had never been developed, no one would be saying newspapers were doomed. They would just be saying, “Well, you know, this is going to end and they’re going to bounce back because they’re better than other vehicles or they can compete with TV and radio and everything else.” It’s just that with the web, everything’s changed. So that’s the big problem. It’s not that newspapers have been losing money for years. It’s a pretty recent phenomenon.
MediaBloodhound: So you’re saying beneath this dirty secret is the fact that this has a lot to do with the greed of companies that own these papers and the profit margins they’re expecting?
Greg Mitchell: Yeah, part of it was greed, but partly because they had to bow to the greed of shareholders and Wall Street. So it may not be so much that the presidents and CEOs of these companies were greedy as it was they had to respond to the unfair demands of investors. When you have to respond to demands of people saying, “You’ve got to cut because you’re losing money,” that’s one thing. But when you have the big cuts and not invest in things…I can’t say this clearly but it could be that if there hadn’t been such a demand for cuts going back three, four years ago, five years ago, newspapers might have invested more heavily in the web, might have started to make the changes earlier that they needed to make for the coming web revolution. But they were already in cost-cutting mode five or six years ago, when they were making twenty-five percent profit margins. So that’s not a good situation to be in when you have to kind of remake your business for the future.
Editor’s Note: Due to technical difficulties, the original answers to the following questions in our phone interview were regretfully lost. Mitchell was kind enough to answer the questions again but in abbreviated form via email.
MediaBloodhound: In one of your recent “Pressing Issues” columns for E&P, you applaud that the media can finally photograph returning coffins but lament the continued censorship of graphic images in the U.S. media from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You end the column with a 2005 quote from war photographer Chris Hondros: “I think if we are going to start a war we ought to show the consequences of that war.” What do you think is the impact of this censorship on the American public? And do you think it will ever change?
Greg Mitchell: The impact on the Iraq War was significant and possibly could have turned the tide to a quicker withdrawal if the images were shown back when we were losing a lot of troops — and killing a lot of Iraqi civilians. Now there is not as much to show and few there to capture the images. And Afghanistan is even worse. So I don’t see the mainstream changing much, although more people will see more graphic images on the web as time goes on.
MediaBloodhound: Getting back to the current state of the newspaper business, of the handful of profit models proposed for newspapers in recent months, which do you find the most promising?
Greg Mitchell: I can’t really say. Obviously, everything should be considered. All I’ll say is that I am much less cynical about the prospects of some pay payoff than the true naysayers. Hundreds of thousands, for example, did sign up for The New York Times’ pay service, even though the paper ultimately junked it.
MediaBloodhound: With as difficult a period as this is for the news industry, do you think the quality of news will improve in the long run as a result of what’s happening now?
Greg Mitchell: With so many great reporters exiting, it would be hard to forecast that. The web experts and bloggers and journos do a great job but something will really be missing on the truly big national probes.
MediaBloodhound: Do you think being an investigative reporter will remain a viable way to earn a living or do you see it, as a profession, becoming something akin to pursuing a literary fiction or poetry career, in that most investigative reporters will eventually be forced to also support themselves by other means such as teaching?
Greg Mitchell: It will become more freelance and after hours, with people with great (if often niche) expertise adding a lot.
Editor’s Note: An exchange at the end of Mitchell’s original phone interview response to the prior question was recalled verbatim and added here. It involved the idea that some news institutions may survive even if they’re not profitable.
Greg Mitchell: CBS News is not going to cancel “60 Minutes” even if it’s losing money. They’ll make it up somewhere else.
MediaBloodhound: Or maybe eventually it will be “6 Minutes.”
Greg Mitchell: Or “Sixty Seconds.”
Cross-posted from MediaBloodhound. (Interview conducted by Brad Jacobson.)