The signature defect of modern political journalism is that it has shredded the ideal of proportionality.
Important stories, sometimes the product of months of serious reporting, that in an earlier era would have captured the attention of the entire political-media community and even redirected the course of a presidential campaign, these days can disappear with barely a whisper.
Trivial stories - the kind that are tailor-made for forwarding to your brother-in-law or college roommate with a wisecracking note at the top - can dominate the campaign narrative for days.
Who can guess what stories will cause the media machine to rev up its hype jets?
Actually, I have gotten pretty good at guessing which ones will. So have many of my colleagues and a generation of political operatives.
This weekend's uproar over Hillary Rodham Clinton invoking the assassination of Robert Kennedy as rationale for continuing her presidential campaign is an especially vivid example of modern journalism as hyperkinetic child - overstimulated by speed and hunger for a head-turning angle that will draw an audience.
The truth about what Clinton said - and any fair-minded appraisal of what she meant - was entirely beside the point.
Her comment was news by any standard. But it was only big news when wrested from context and set aflame by a news media more concerned with being interesting and provocative than with being relevant or serious. Thus, the story made the front page of The New York Times, was the lead story of The Washington Post and got prominent treatment on the evening news on ABC, CBS and NBC.
I should say at the outset that I have a pretty good vantage point on this particular case - both as witness of and participant in the echo chamber.
On Friday afternoon, I heard my colleague, Politico reporter Jonathan Martin, bellow in excitement as he called me over to his desk.
Martin was furiously typing away, not looking up as he told me the latest: Clinton had given an interview to the editorial board of the Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota in which she answered inquiries into why she is staying in the race by citing the fact that it's only May, and RFK had been shot and killed in June.
Here is what I was thinking: Wow. Maybe she has come unhinged? It's not as though such macabre thoughts have never occurred to me, but for Clinton to give public voice to such a scenario is bizarre. This is going to be a big story and is almost certainly going to shadow and quite likely accelerate the final chapter of her presidential campaign.
Here is what I said: Martin, quick get that item up!
He needed no prompting.
As leaders of a new publication, Politico's senior editors and I are relentlessly focused on audience traffic. The way to build traffic on the Web is to get links from other websites. The way to get links is to be first with news - sometimes big news, sometimes small - that drives that day's conversation.
We are unapologetic in our premium on high velocity. In this focus on links and traffic we are not different from nearly all news sites these days, not just new publications but established ones like The New York Times.
There are probably a dozen websites with a heavy political emphasis whose links are sought by all for the traffic those links drive.
Martin was quick getting the item about Clinton's Argus Leader comment up on his Politico blog.
But not as quick as The New York Post, which was the first outside South Dakota to notice Clinton's inflammatory remarks (Martin himself knew about Clinton's remarks from the New York tabloid's story). The Associated Press, in what looked at first blush like a classic example of what reporters call "burying the lead," had no mention of Clinton's RFK remarks in its original dispatch on the interview.
I urged Martin to keep his foot on the gas: Be the first to post reaction from the Obama campaign. Obama spokesman Bill Burton quickly obliged, denouncing Clinton's comments and saying such sentiments have "no place in this campaign." Burton's comments quickly went into Martin's blog post. Soon enough, several websites and cable news outlets were giving the story trumpet-blaring treatment.
Perhaps half an hour after the story broke Martin called me back over to his desk. It turned out the Argus Leader had video of its big interview. I huddled over Martin's computer as we watched.
It was a deflating experience.
The RFK remarks were deep in a 20-minute clip of an otherwise routine conversation. Then, once we actually got to the relevant portion of the video, it was hardly an electric moment.
Clinton does indeed mention the Kennedy assassination, speaking in a calm and analytical tone: "My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California."
Martin and I both thought we saw a slight twinge in Clinton's facial expression, as though she recognized she had just said something dumb.
Whether she recognized it or not, she had.
But it was also clear that Clinton's error was not in saying something beyond the pale but in saying something that pulled from context would sound as if it were beyond the pale.
It would be a big story if Clinton said something like this: "Hey, I know it looks bad for me now. But, think about it. Obama could get shot and I'd get to be the nominee after all."
It is a small story if Clinton said something like this: "Everyone talks like May is incredibly late, but by historical standards it is not. Think of all the famous milestones in presidential races that have taken place during June."
It seems pretty obvious that the latter is what Clinton meant, and not too far from what she actually said. It was not surprising that the Argus Leader's executive editor, Randall Beck, put out a statement saying, "Her reference to Mr. Kennedy's assassination appeared to focus on the time line of his primary candidacy and not the assassination itself."
Make no mistake. Clinton stepped on a rake with her comment and got bopped in the face. This was entertaining political slapstick, for those of us who like that kind of thing. Little wonder she apologized.
But Clinton's clumsiness does not excuse news media clumsiness in making a minor story seem like a major one. A note on the randomness of the news: If this really was a big story, then the media has blown it for months. Clinton made similar remarks to Time magazine back in March. (The Wall Street Journal reporter with Clinton has an entertaining look at how the pack traveling with the candidate initially missed the story.)
Keeping one's journalistic bearings amid a hype storm is a challenge for every publication, this one included. In the early months of this publication (we launched in January 2007), a short news item broken by Ben Smith about John Edwards' $400 haircut became one of our most-trafficked stories. I thought we handled that news nugget with a decent sense of proportion. The item, for instance, never led our site. But it's true I was not exactly despairing when other websites and cable TV networks went way overboard on the story, with citations to Politico.
Nor is this column intended as a mea culpa for Hillary Hype. Velocity is a virtue in the Web world, and we are not going to stop trying to be fast off the mark - for relevant and fairly reported stories. What Clinton said about Robert Kennedy, whether it was cold or just a bit clueless, was newsworthy, and Martin's original blog post was responsible in framing the context of her remark. He was equally quick to post her clarification and apology. The uproar was never the lead of our site.
But it was striking to see the broadcast networks and big papers, which were still going at full boil that evening and the next morning even though they had plenty of time to assess the (dwindling) significance of the story as the day wore on. (Meanwhile Friday, Obama was giving a major foreign-policy speech in Miami to unveil his plan for Latin America.) In an earlier era, these establishment outlets prized their role in promoting and preserving high standards of relevance.
In this era, with their business model challenged by the Web and other forces, and in the same scramble for audience as everyone else, these fabled elite media organs are if anything more buffeted by sensationalism and whimsy than their new media counterparts.
Once, the elite papers and network news set the agenda, and others followed suit, following up on what these establishment pillars deemed important.
Now it's just the opposite. The conservative old voices increasingly take their cues from the newer, more daring ones.
The distinguishing feature of most political hype storms is that they pass quickly. Who the hell can remember what we were up in arms about last month? Wasn't it something about Sinbad and a telecom lobbyist who was bitter about being a Muslim?
In that sense, a news culture in which - like the amplifiers for "Spinal Tap" that go up to 11 - everything is exaggerated may not seem like a big deal.
But the consequences are more serious than meets the eye. The uproar du jour mentality in the media can be a hassle for public officials, but it can also be their friend. Hillary Clinton, for instance, can be glad that a serious look by The New York Times about Bill Clinton's dealings with a Canadian tycoon trying to curry favor with a dictatorship never generated much interest from other media.
Politicians know that as long as they have a base of support they can probably ride out any story confident that the pack will soon move on. Only a news media with the focus and discipline to distinguish a big story from a small one can hold politicians accountable - and produce the work that deserves an audience.
By John F. Harris