The novelist Douglas Coupland wrote on the cover of last weekend’s New York Times Book Review that “we appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once — a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet.”
He was talking about literature, but the political class is currently reckoning with the same disconcerting reality. Mitt Romney, who thought he’d cleanly flipped on abortion and left the issue behind in the 00s lives daily with his words from his pro-choice period. Barack Obama, who survived the hot light of a presidential campaign in 2008, finds that on any given day, a 1991 video may have more impact on his carefully-guarded image than a Rose Garden press conference. Issues that seem navigable in theory, like both candidates’ shifts away from the gay rights movement, are harder to pull off on bright pink paper.
YouTube and the embarrassing old videos that live there, was founded in 2005 and came of age as a political tool during the 2008 cycle. Then, campaigns put videos online to influence reporters; reporters and bloggers struggled with the question of whether posting a web ad that never actually aired on television meant turning yourself from analyst to a distribution mechanism. This cycle, campaigns and the press are navigating something different: Online politics as a mass medium, one that’s devoted to persuasion as well as fundraising, organizing, and insider influence.
Reporting has always been about showing readers something new, and this strange leveling has challenged both reporters and campaigns. A document that has been mentioned in a major newspaper may still, it turns out, be new to readers. A quote looks one way on paper; it feels new in video. And a president’s biography may be well known and documented; that doesn’t mean it’s well understood, or that either his admirers or detractors have lost interest.
BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski has been feeling his way out in this space over the past year, digging up both traditional bombshell documents and videos that are frankly new; and videos that put emotional flesh on the bones of a well-known story. This sometimes gets called “opposition research,” but it’s more just a very traditional kind of reporting: Bringing readers something that’s new to them. Kaczynski has great research chops, but equally important is his news judgement, and sense of the questions people are asking.
One of the questions people continue to ask is: Where did Barack Obama come from? Because Obama rose from obscurity, there isn’t a glut of footage from his early years. Kaczynski was startled when more than a million people clicked to watch a deadly dull minute of Obama reading a script about Black History Month in 1991. The video that BuzzFeed and Breitbart raced to post last week wasn’t quite as boring, but it captured a scene of some modest interest in Obama’s long career of navigating the complex politics of race, one which had been covered in major newspapers and biographies.
The latter video drew more than 2 million views, but “bewilderment” from NPR’s veteran media critic, David Folkenflik.
“[W]hat on earth do BuzzFeed and Breitbart’s Big sites consider the scoop to be? Obama, who has repeatedly written and spoken about race, identity and American history, advocated greater diversity for the Harvard law faculty. This should surprise neither his supporters nor his detractors,” he wrote.
Folkenflik had two objections. First, he said, the video had already aired under a voiceover in a 2009 Frontline documentary in 2009. Second, he said — as Kaczynski had in his introduction of the video — that the video did not reflect a new incident or new theme in Obama’s career, it just documented well-known ones.
“Scoops are supposed to break news or deepen our understanding in new ways. This video flap accomplished neither,” he sniffed.
There’s little value in litigating the word “scoop,” a word Folkenflik seems to have introduced into the argument himself. But BuzzFeed, like most news organizations, prides itself on bringing readers things that are new to them, not things they have already seen, and this video fit that definition. BuzzFeed, unlike Breitbart.com, didn’t present it as a revelation or as breaking news, but as a video that was compelling for qualitative reasons: Obama, looking like a very young man, but sounding eerily like his present self, captured on film in the fulcrum of the campus racial politics of the period.
This is a new category of news: “News to me.” It’s subjective, and requires in reporters an ability to stand in a kind of middle space: To have the detailed knowledge of a beat to know the context of a piece or a document; but not to be so jaded by that knowledge that they forget how much more powerful it is to glimpse a gay pride flier than to read or hear about one.