It’s tough enough for the average political news consumer to keep a sense of perspective while navigating the noisome 24/7 cycle. It’s even tougher for a political news writer who seeks to practice long-form journalism is a short-form culture.
Case in point, Ryan Lizza. The Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine remarked last year that today’s epidemic of “tweeting and commenting and hammering (politicians) when they say something off-message” has “created a crisis for political journalism.” Lizza and his D.C. compadres need to gain access to the heavy hitters – but heavy hitters in the digital era “genuinely do not believe it’s in their interest to talk in an unguarded way.” Lizza has been toiling in Washington for 15 years, and the access problem “is worse now than it’s ever been.”
I asked Lizza about those remarks on Wednesday, when I hosted him at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House. He duly elaborated:
“The price (politicians) pay now for a ‘gaffe’ is so high – the way Twitter and cable jump on stray comments – it’s just insane. So the campaigns are closed off in ways that weren’t even true in 2008….It’s really hard to cover campagns now – especially with a magazine like The New Yorker, which wants depth, in-depth interviews….You can go to a politician and say, ‘I’ll give you lots of time, 10 (magazine) pages about your whole life, long quotes – but sometimes it doesn’t matter, because (after publication) a quote can get cherry-picked and spun out on Twitter. It happens all the time. It’s happened to me.”
True that. You know how Obama critics always claim that the president wants to “lead from behind” – a phrase that (in their minds) is deemed to be synonymous with foreign policy weakness? Lest we forget, those three words were plucked from the final paragraph of a 9,200-word Lizza piece. And, as Lizza pointed out Wednesday, the words actually meant the opposite of what conservative spinners said they meant.
It all began two years ago, when Lizza sat down with Obama aides to talk foreign policy. His affiliation with The New Yorker was actually an advantage, he said, because the White House actually likes long-form journalism: “They have a very negative attitude about the daily grind of journalism in Washington. They’re constantly complaining about Twitter,” where the discourse is reduced to pithy one-liners. Indeed, he said, the Obama team “is no different from any other political operation, being difficult to work with and making access hard.”
Lizza got the requisite access, and ultimately wrote – by today’s standards, at great length – about foreign policy in the context of Obama’s intervention in the Libyan civil war. In the final paragraph, he quoted an unnamed Obama adviser who described the president’s strategy as “leading from behind.” Heads exploded on the Republican right. Obama’s critics marketed the phrase as proof that Obama was a wimp bent on reducing America’s clout.
“But if you read it in full context,” Lizza said at Penn, “it means something very different.” In truth – as detailed in the article – Obama wanted America to play a robust role in Libya, but due to Middle East sensitivities about American muscle (sensitivities that had been heightened by George W. Bush’s cowboy behavior), Obama knew the mission would backfire if it was perceived to be a unilateral American enterprise. So, in essence, he got the Arab League to do his bidding, to front for him – and he got the United Nations to approve what the Arab League wanted.
In fact, the strategy of “leading from behind” can be traced back to Nelson Mandela, who wrote in his 1994 autobiography that a leader “is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” (Lizza mentioned the Mandela passage in a blog post shortly after publication of his article.)
But even though Lizza says the “Twitter ecosystem” has made his life harder, he still needs its buzz. He told me that, like it or not, the goal of long-form journalism in the digital era is to become part of the short-term conversation. If a magazine article gets 24/7 buzz, it takes on new life. Without buzz, it dies unseen like a tree felled in a forest.
So Lizza has no choice but to play the game sometimes. He tweets regularly (“I use it to procrastinate, I’m very good at that”), and he posts on the magazine website. Indeed, New Yorker writers are encouraged to use “other platforms, other outlets, to ventilate our thoughts.”
He paused. Then he said: “Nowadays, of course, we have no unventilated thoughts.”
I doubt he was referring only to the journalists.
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