Journalism by Press Release

Looking at my calendar, I see that we are almost at the halfway mark between the August 9 primary and the November 8 election. And I’m still waiting for the serious news coverage to begin.

So far, it’s been just short of pathetic. Reporters have chased around the obvious opportunities — press releases, press conferences, debates — but initiated very little on their own, and done virtually no fact-checking or analysis of candidates’ positions.

Maybe they’re just waiting. Or maybe the market-driven diminution of our media corps has reached the point where there simply isn’t any meat left on the bones.

There’s a stale, formulaic air about the campaign coverage so far. Somebody issues a press release or holds an event; the media react like Pavlov’s dog; they dutifully get quotes from “both sides,” post the story, lather, rinse, repeat.

In effect, the media are allowing candidates and partiers to set the agenda.

The latest instance of Journalism By Press Release comes from the frequently formidable Bob Kinzel of VPR. He actually gave credence to David Sunderland’s stupefying complaint about possible bias in the distribution of early ballots. The title, “How early does ‘early voting begin? Depends on where you live” lends weight to the notion that something funny is going on.

Kinzel then puts Sunderland’s “concern” front and center, and then takes his sweet time before getting to Condos’ thorough dismissal of the complaint. In the eighth paragraph!

The story is flawed; it also follows the standard formula. Someone puts out a press release, a reporter seizes on it and dutifully produces a “he said, she said” story without regard to whether the press release has any merit whatsoever.

The journalism is reactive, not proactive.

The biggest beneficiary of this — not that it will do him any good — is Scott Milne. His entire campaign has been one long exercise in trollery. He’s not running on issues; he’s just trying to needle Pat Leahy. But it kinda works: he puts out a statement slamming Leahy, and the media pick it up and run it.

In many cases, Milne doesn’t even bother to hold a press conference. He just sends out the release and lets the Pavlovian conditioning do the work.

The second biggest beneficiary of rote journalism is Phil Scott. He’s put out a flurry of questionable assertions and phony numbers, but is anyone following up? Not that I’ve seen.

I say Milne is the bigger beneficiary because without the media’s compliance, he wouldn’t have a campaign at all. But the free ride (so far) given to Scott is much more consequential. If his record and platform go without media scrutiny, he stands a very good chance of riding his personal charm to the Governorship. Milne’s gonna lose, no matter how many borderline defamatory press releases he puts out.

In a sense, I understand the dilemmas of modern journalism. Reporters are stretched thin. They are expected to crank out reams of “content.” They don’t have time, or aren’t given the time, to take deep dives into issues or agendas. So they resort to formulaic reporting, and they snatch eagerly for the low-hanging fruit.

Problem is, that allows the politicians and the parties to set the agenda without much blowback. And that leads to a poorly-informed electorate, making choices based on the images generated by campaigns and the dull, uninsightful brand of political journalism that’s all to common these days.



4 thoughts on “Journalism by Press Release

  1. Macy Franklin

    While we’re on the subject, why can’t journalists disclose who they voted for, so we can see the bias in their reporting?
    In VT it’s likely 95% D.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Sanctity of the ballot box, perhaps? Why should reporters give up a freedom we all enjoy?

      Besides, if you can’t see the bias by simply reading someone’s work, knowing their voting history would only give you a pretext for inferring bias.

  2. Walter Carpenter

    “The second biggest beneficiary of rote journalism is Phil Scott.”

    The media does need to dig down here as Scott is getting away with it.


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