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?