News media's sausage-making obsession helps no one

Thanksgiving is all about turkey, of course. But lately the mainstream media has been obsessed with something else: sausages — and how they get made.

Another term for this is “process reporting” — breathless coverage of every minor twist and turn in the way legislation is manufactured and sold. An internet search of “Democrats + Biden + Sausage” turns up over half-a-million results.

This kind of journalism is nothing new. But it has gotten more extreme, past the point that it’s really helping anybody. 

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To be fair, Democrats are doing all they can to encourage this kind of coverage. They actually seem to revel in the mess. Right after the House voted for the Build Back Better bill, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi says she's open to stock trading ban for Congress Manchin: Biden spending plan talks would start 'from scratch' Reps. Massie, Grijalva test positive for COVID-19 MORE (D-Calif.) reminded reporters, “It’s called the legislative process” — as if all the very public stops, starts, ups and downs of the past several months were proof that things were working well, not falling apart.

President BidenJoe BidenPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy  Vilsack accuses China of breaking commitments in Trump-era trade deal MORE, celebrating the passage of the bi-partisan infrastructure bill, proclaimed to journalists at the White House: “Finally, the sausage is made.”

Mainstream media have embraced the Democrats’ sausage-making with gusto for one primary reason: All that protein feeds their beast. In digital journalism and the 24/7 cable news environment, every moment is a deadline, every second of airtime must be filled.

When hard facts are in short supply, behind-the-scenes gossip is a handy substitute. Like a conveyor belt that never stops, this endless amount of rumor allows the media to keep calling a story “developing” or, better yet, “breaking.”

This creates a unique sausage-making synergy. Yes, process-reporting feeds modern journalism’s insatiable hunger for new material. But it also presents certain types of politicians with something they crave: lots of on-camera opportunities. One side encourages the other. And that keeps the cliffhanger “process” story going: Will the bill pass? What’s in, what’s out? Who has clout? Who doesn’t?

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For a senator or House member, there is no glory in dealing with disagreements offstage until a resolution is reached — not when a gaggle of cameras and reporters stands in every Capitol Hill hallway, anxiously seeking anything they can instantly publish online or broadcast live on cable news.

If you have an outsized ego — reportedly not unusual in Washington — this is a perfect arrangement.

And, after all, who gets hurt by it? 

A lot of people do. They’re called “voters” or, sometimes, “average citizens.”

Journalists justify process-reporting by insisting it brings transparency to Capitol Hill and the White House. Even Shalanda Young, President Biden’s acting budget director, told one news outlet: “Frankly, a lot of Americans said they want to see sausage-making up close and personal.”

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But do they really? Not in this way.

Transparency is good, but this is a continuous whirl of prefabricated conflict and outrage in all-capital letters that turns every detour into a don’t-touch-that-dial crisis … until the next catastrophe comes along at the top of a new cable news hour. 

Americans are exhausted. For the past 20 years, they have dealt with terror attacks, two wars, an economic collapse, a deadly pandemic, and an attempt to overthrow a presidential election through a deadly assault on the Capitol building. Polls consistently show Americans are pessimistic about nearly every institution, beginning with politics and national leadership.

A relentless focus on process — which is really a relentless focus on a few personalities — doesn’t bring any light to this darkness. Instead, it provokes this deep sense that things are off track.

It’s an axiom among some journalists that “process” doesn’t matter to many voters come Election Day; they simply don’t follow it that closely. That’s true — and part of the problem. Voters may not cling to every shift in the sausage-making, but there is a trickle-down effect. On nightly newscasts, on their Facebook feeds and cell phones, they pick up just enough to conclude that democracy is still broken and probably won’t ever get fixed.

A poll two weeks ago showed that solid majorities of those surveyed support both Biden’s infrastructure package and Build Back Better. But Biden’s approval rating was at a new low — a dip driven not by Republicans, but Democrats and independents. It seems Americans like the legislation — but all that reporting about sausages gives even Biden supporters a big case of heartburn. They’ve simply had their fill.

It’s time to dial back on this kind of journalism, or at least the astounding amount that’s currently produced. To some degree, it contributes to a damaging perception that things are falling apart. Given what the nation went through on Jan. 6, and is still trying to deal with, it’s not hard to see this needs to change. 

More than a century ago, the German statesman Otto von Bismarck famously said: “To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.”

At least for a little while, maybe the media can feast on some leftover turkey. And take Bismarck’s advice: Stop watching the sausages.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.