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Feeding Frenzy: Attack Journalism & American Politics -Larry J. Sabato. Becky Canovan Ryan Hoover Lindsey Boyett Lyndsay Leggott. Overview. History of Journalism Lapdog, Watchdog, Junkyard Dog Factors causing attacks Watergate Mob Psychology Consequences

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Feeding frenzy attack journalism american politics larry j sabato

Feeding Frenzy: Attack Journalism & American Politics-Larry J. Sabato

Becky Canovan

Ryan Hoover

Lindsey Boyett

Lyndsay Leggott


  • History of Journalism

    • Lapdog, Watchdog, Junkyard Dog

  • Factors causing attacks

    • Watergate

    • Mob Psychology

  • Consequences

    • Press, Candidate, Voters, Political System

  • Remedies

  • Discussion and Conclusions

Feeding frenzy
“Feeding Frenzy”

  • “…a feeding frenzy is defined as the press coverage attending any political event or circumstance where a critical mass of journalists leap to cover the same embarrassing or scandalous subject and pursue it intensely, often excessively, and sometimes uncontrollably.” ~Sabato, p. 6

History of journalism
History of Journalism

  • Began around 1690

  • Party papers

  • Penny press

  • Yellow journalism and muckraking

  • World War I

Lapdog journalism
Lapdog Journalism

  • Rooseveltian rule of thumb

  • Supported and protected politicians

  • JFK and Camelot


Watchdog journalism
Watchdog Journalism

  • Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick

  • Private life influencing politics

  • Everything is fair game

Junkyard dog journalism
Junkyard Dog Journalism

  • Women in journalism

  • Television overtaking newspapers

  • Extensive research discarded

Factors in attack prominence
Factors in Attack Prominence

  • New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

  • Slow news periods

    • “If you are going to fuck up, don’t fuck up in the middle of August when there is nothing else to write about.” ~Steve Roberts, 1989, U.S. News & World Report

More factors
More Factors

  • Women & feminism in the media

  • Search to validate the subtext

  • Watergate


  • Most profound impact of any modern event on how the journalism world changed

  • Guilt about underplaying political disasters

  • Character issues

Mob psychology
Mob Psychology

  • “I’ve been in that group psychology; I know what it’s like. You think you’re on to something, you’ve got somebody on the run. How dare they not come clean? How dare they not tell the full story? What are they trying to hide? Why are they hiding it? And you become a crusader for the truth. Goddammit, you’re going to get the truth!”

    ~CNN’s Frank Sesno

Consequences of attack journalism
Consequences of Attack Journalism

  • Press Consequences

  • Candidate Consequences

  • Voter Consequences

  • Consequences for the Political System

Press consequences
Press Consequences

  • Declining standards

  • LCD journalism

  • Increase in competition

  • Invasion of privacy areas

  • Strengthening of pack journalism

  • Reduce access to elected officials

  • Growing hostility toward the press

Candidate consequences
Candidate Consequences

  • Damaged by controversies

  • Can end political careers

  • “People were always waiting for the other shoe to drop with Barry, and it always did; then people would say, ‘now the mayor’s finished’—but they ignored the fact that he was a centipede who had more shoes left to drop than Imelda Marcos.”

    ~Tom Sherwood, journalist, speaking of Mayor Marion Barry

Voter consequences
Voter Consequences

  • Less news watching

  • Encouragement of cynicism

  • Candidates eliminated before the electorate speaks

  • “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.”

    ~Queen of Hearts – Alice in Wonderland

Consequences for the political system
Consequences for the Political System

  • Increased openness and accountability

  • Candidates not focusing on issues

  • Many viable candidates steer clear of the system


  • Independently verify news stories by network

  • Do not raise dead-and-buried tales from the crypt

  • Go after the evildoers when false rumors come to the surface

  • Internal checks and balances

  • Changing attitudes of journalists

  • “The most rational, logical solution for candidates is to avoid the sins and circumstances that spawn frenzies.” p. 167

Voter contribution
Voter Contribution

  • If public chooses not to listen

  • Choice of outlet for information

  • Decreasing voter cynicism


  • On Clinton saying he’s capable of commanding the U.S. military because he’s headed the Arkansas National Guard: “Isn’t that like saying you can fly the space shuttle because you’ve seen every episode of Star Trek?”

    ~Jay Leno, August 31, 1992


  • Top Ten Reasons Clinton Is Losing His Lead: No. 2 – “More and more people like the idea of a tiny, insane millionaire running things.”

    ~ David Letterman, October 29, 1992

  • Said Letterman: “In, out, in, out – isn’t that what got him in trouble in the first place?” - said in reference to Gary Hart


  • Internet

  • Updated examples

  • Discussion

Take home lesson
Take Home Lesson

  • “If we tell people there’s absolutely nothing private left to them, then we will tend to attract to public office only those most brazen, least sensitive personalities. Is that what we want to do?” ~New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis