Top Baker aide sees ‘herd mentality’ in shrinking press corps

A top aide to Gov. Charlie Baker says the shrinking press corps covering state policy and politics in Massachusetts is having a major impact on how news is reported.

Tim Buckley, the governor’s chief of staff, said on The Codcast that fewer reporters covering state government can lead to a “herd mentality” on some stories and less analysis and nuance in coverage overall.  

The 30-day Orange Line shutdown, for example, was covered as if it was a deadly hurricane barreling toward the Massachusetts coast, Buckley said. He pointed out that one outlet warned riders that commutes during the shutdown “may mean embarking into a new circle of hell” (Boston Globe) while another ran its coverage under the banner “30 days to save the T” (GBH). (CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly attributed the save the T banner to WBUR.)

Buckley said news reporters posted predictions of gloom and doom on Twitter. “You see some of this from opinion writers often times, but usually you don’t see something like this from the news side before anything has happened,” he said. “I get it, the T is not without its faults. But on this event, on the coverage of this event, a real herd mentality set in.”

He also said the goal posts for evaluating the shutdown kept moving. At first, the big test was day one of the shutdown, then the first work day, then the first work day after Labor Day, and then the day when Boston students returned to school.

“It seems like even before the first bus left the garage, there was an angle that was decided with the media corps on this one,” Buckley said. “Maybe it was deserved given some of the T’s past issues. Maybe it wasn’t. I think the end result of the diversion would say it wasn’t.”

Buckley stressed that solid reporting is still going on every day, but the general trendlines are fairly pronounced. With fewer reporters covering state issues, Buckley said, fewer stories get reported and there is less analysis and less focus on the nuance of issues. He said reporters have less time to seek out alternative viewpoints on any given issue.

“Sometimes the noisiest critics are the ones most often quoted,” he said. “They make for good copy and good headlines.”

Buckley said moderate politicians fared well in the Massachusetts primary elections, but “you wouldn’t have seen that coming from some of the more strident, more extreme voices that are in the coverage more often than not.” 

The diminishing number of reporters also has broader implications, according to Buckley, who said the vacuum created by the retreat of traditional media outlets has been filled by new outlets where “it’s hard to discern between news and opinion.” He said some news websites are just a collection of press releases.

“I think that turns readers and residents and voters off from trying to participate in that local state government media coverage,” Buckley said. “You’re left with more national news in its place. Voters and residents by and large do not approve of the way things go in Washington, DC, so when you get more of that national coverage, I think it turns people off from trying to watch and read more about it.”

It may help explain why politicians in Massachusetts and across the country are ducking debates and, at least so far, getting away with it as voters show little interest.

“It’s a bit of the chicken and the egg,” Buckley said. “You need to have a strong and well-followed media corps to be critical of decisions like that., but at the same time if you don’t have people participating in that process it’s not going to be strong and it’s not going to be well-followed.”




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