The Triumph of Twitter

September 17, 2013
By Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Gazette

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. With Twitter having transformed the way the news media cover presidential elections, politicians and journalists are now agreeing on one thing: That is a huge problem.

“Twitter is the central news source for the Washington-based political news establishment,” said Peter Hamby, a Washington, D.C.-based political reporter for CNN.

But the “shallow nature of today’s political journalism,” fed in large part by Twitter, has led to “a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context,” Hamby said in a research paper written while he was a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy last spring.

Hamby studied Twitter’s role in reshaping how the media covered the 2012 presidential campaign, and how wary political strategists reacted by fencing candidates off from most reporters, particularly those in the once-prestigious traveling press corps.

“Any perceived gaffe or stumble can become a full-blown narrative in a matter of hours, if not minutes, thanks to the velocity of the Twitter conversation that now informs national reporters, editors, and television producers,” Hamby said in a phone interview.

Although only a tiny fraction of voters are on Twitter, most of the news stories written about candidates incubate in conversations that begin as tweets. “Its ability to shape conventional wisdom this cycle was remarkable,” said Hamby. “It was the first thing we all looked at as reporters every morning and before bed. It’s the first thing the Obama and Romney campaigns did, where they went to spar and engage.”

For his research paper “Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus?” published this month, Hamby interviewed more than 70 top journalists and political operatives in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, as well as others who worked on prior elections for both political parties.

The paper’s title refers to Timothy Crouse’s groundbreaking 1973 book, “The Boys on the Bus,” about life on the campaign road with the randy band of now-famous journalists, including Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Germond, and R.W. “Johnny” Apple, who covered the 1972 presidential campaign of Richard Nixon and George McGovern.

Hamby said his desire to study Twitter’s role in manipulating coverage of Washington politics was prompted by own experiences on the campaign trail, where he said the pace and the kinds of news stories being told in the Twitter era differed radically from the 2008 election cycle.

“It just felt so frenzied and small at times, and I wanted to take a break and reflect on how we covered the 2012 campaign — talk to the people I got to know during the campaign, both inside the Obama and Romney camps, but also my fellow reporters and just talk to them about how it all felt. What can we do better?”

Hamby’s research focused on the cadre of mostly young reporters who lived in what he called “the bubble.” Armed with digital video cameras, iPhones, and notepads, the group daily followed Romney’s every move as his political road show crisscrossed the country.

Hamby said that the Romney campaign’s open disdain for his tweeting press corps was borne largely from the belief that what they wanted was not substance, but a gaffe or meme-worthy moment to blast out to followers.

“You have two guys on a stage, and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls into the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?” Fox News president Roger Ailes famously said in 1988, when he was a political operative.

It was a lesson the Romney campaign took to heart.

“Twitter has changed the back of the bus,” Matt Rhoades, Romney’s former campaign manager, told Hamby. “This environment is just not as conducive for us to go back there. It’s just people on Twitter waiting for Mitt to fall in the orchestra pit.” read more

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Peter Hamby, Shorenstein Center Spring 2013 Fellow

Peter Hamby, Shorenstein Center Spring 2013 Fellow

Photo Credit: Martha Stewart

“It just felt so frenzied and small at times, and I wanted to take a break and reflect on how we covered the 2012 campaign — talk to the people I got to know during the campaign, both inside the Obama and Romney camps, but also my fellow reporters and just talk to them about how it all felt. What can we do better?"