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Twitter is killing political journalism

Some 45 years and 12 presidential elections ago, a young campaign insider named Joe McGinnis wrote a tell-all book called "The Selling of the President 1968." It peeled away the most conniving calculations that helped put Richard Nixon in the Oval Office, and told much about Nixon himself.

In the wake of the 2012 election, CNN reporter Peter Hamby, who covered the Mitt Romney campaign, has written an exhaustive examination of its press coverage asking: "Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus?" Commissioned by Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, it is as eye-opening on the evolution of campaign coverage as was McGinnis's earlier opus on the television machinations of the Nixon campaign.

As one of the surviving boys put under Timothy Crouse's microscope in "The Boys on the Bus" after the 1972 presidential campaign, I can only express personal awe and dismay at how the standards of political reporting have been assaulted and eroded over recent years. The study persuasively identifies the Twitter phenomenon as a principal culprit.

The new media device of boiling down a message to a "tweet" of no more than 140 characters may have some attraction in conveying one's instant thoughts about anything to anybody who cares to read it. But I would agree with the author that Twitter has little place in the serious business of examining what makes presidential candidates tick. That in my view remains the principle justification for news organizations assigning reporters to monitor their campaigns.

The cost of putting a reporter on a campaign plane is not a trivial matter, and the reportage warranting the major expense in travel and time should likewise not be reduced to the trivia seen in most tweets. Not only is its production a waste of a reporter's time; more importantly, it is a distraction from the kind of thoughtful assessment and analysis of the candidate and campaign that should be offered.

In 2012, many reporters "on the bus" did deliver that desired product. But too often it was lost in the meaningless chatter or spreading of gossip and rumor subject to little or no editorial screening or review. To the discredit of all the reporters, it sometimes seemed the inmates had taken over the asylum.

The Harvard paper also examines at length the sharp diminution of reporters' access to candidates and key strategists in recent presidential cycles. It has inevitably generated hostility between the news media and the campaigns, to a point of mutual animosity that seldom existed in the earlier relationship "on the bus."

In this regard, some have contended that in those earlier days, an unhealthy coziness developed that caused reporters either to be soft on candidates or to write as a cooperative pack. The result, supposedly, was a collective voice from within "the bubble" of the bus or plane.

That, however, is a serious misreading of a journalistic climate that was highly individual and competitive. Occasional news beats or insights gleaned from private access were tenaciously guarded from one's colleagues, while all generally maintained cordiality. In dealing with the candidates and campaigns, reporters with personal access usually avoided the sort of "gotcha journalism" that became vogue in the wake of Watergate (along with reporters' resultant quest for celebrity in the television era).

The author of the lengthy Harvard paper also reports concerns among veterans in the political press corps and campaign strategists over the lack of experience of many young reporters and low-level television producers "embedded" in presidential campaigns. He cites examples of their inability to recognize major political figures encountered on the campaign trail, and notes that few veteran peers were on the bus to provide the lacking institutional memory.

The more critical argument raised by this valuable study is the negative fallout from the dizzying acceleration of the news cycle, and the pressures it now places on multitasking campaign reporters in the Internet era. The old wire-service edict to "get it first but first get it right" remains essential. But increasingly these days, it is -- pardon the expression -- being twittered away.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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