How the News Cycle Works

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 15 2010 2:02 PM

How the News Cycle Works

Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith, who seem to share my cynicism about this stuff, have the best short take I've seen on how the news cycle works in 2010.

Thecycle starts with the recorded or reported words of a Republican, anyRepublican, anywhere in the country. This may be a well-knownWashington figure like John Boehner, or it may be a name that sendsreporters racing to Google, like Nazi re-enactor Rich Iott, thelong-shot House GOP challenger who got his 15 minutes this week andgave Democrats something to talk about for a moment.

The words, sometimes with the Democrats' help, make their way to newsoutlets from the New York Times to POLITICO to TalkingPointsMemo.

Aidesand operatives then push that report to other media, and the outrage ofthe day finds its way into Obama's speeches and typically is reinforcedby a modest cable buy -- $20,000 or $30,000 to air an ad for a few daysin Washington, D.C. - by the DNC or by a labor-backed ally likeAmericans United for Change.

Sometimes it can mean winning a news cycle - Joe Barton said what aboutBP? - but the small tactical victories have added up to very little.

This really has been happening since January 2009, when Democrats decided to make Rush Limbaugh the face of the GOP. And it happens for a number of reasons. First, the outrage is not phony -- Democratic strategists genuinely are offended when their president's birthplace is questioned, for example. Second, the outrage is good for fundraising , as I discussed on This American Life recently. But the third big reason, and the one that doesn't work at all, is a belief that anything that goes viral has got to be good. Anything that makes Saturday Night Live or the Daily Show? Success! Of course, the priorities of the news/entertainment industry are not the priorities of political parties. They're even less in line with voters, and as someone who covers this stuff, I'm having a harder and harder time defending the promotion of silly stories like "Republican wears Nazi costume!" when unemployment is 9.6 percent.

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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