Chris Cillizza: The transcript bites back

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Republican presidential candidate, Senator Ted Cruz, takes a question from an audience in Las Vegas. Photo / AP
Republican presidential candidate, Senator Ted Cruz, takes a question from an audience in Las Vegas. Photo / AP

The 2016 race is widely seen as the social media election.

Thanks to Donald Trump's active - ahem - presence on Twitter and Instagram, news is often made in 140 characters or short mashed-up videos rather than by candidates on the stump.

But there is another form that is also surging in this election: The transcript.

Consider this: In the past three weeks, transcripts of interviews with a handful of the leading candidates for president have driven the narrative of the 2016 race.

Here they are, from newest to oldest:
1 The New York Daily News transcript of its editorial board interview with Senator Bernie Sanders
2 The Washington Post's transcript of an interview with Trump
3 The New York Times' transcript of its interview with Trump
4 The Washington Post editorial board's transcript (and audio!) of its interview with Trump

The question is why transcripts - and why now? I asked a handful of media critics that question.

Here's what they told me:

- Gabriel Sherman, national affairs editor at New York Magazine: "I think the main factor here is that extended print interviews are still the best forum to stress-test a candidate's policy positions. Television interviewers and network executives face the demands of producing compelling television. For one, there's not enough time during an on-air segment to ask follow-up question after follow-up question."

- John Herrman, the New York Times: "Transcripts are obviously great because they're extensive and meandering and take you places an article or a TV segment wouldn't. But they're also an interesting context experiment. We seem to read transcripts, which are obviously derived from speech, as deliberate writing, or as somehow heightened confession, so they can be punishing for the people being quoted. But we aren't surprised when a transcribed speech comes across as glib or repetitive. I guess we take that for granted? I mean, transcripts from TV interviews are unflattering, too - in less depth."

- Erik Wemple, media blogger for The Post: "The main thing is that transcripts are time-savers: You don't have to sit in front of the television and wade through all the bulls**t. But the main thing is that these particular transcripts reflect really smart people asking smart questions over an extended period. That produces insight on these candidates."

All of that is, of course, right. Transcripts are transparent - both for the people participating in the interview and for the reader. There is no filter, no "news judgment," no arrow pointing at something that someone tells you is the Most Important Thing. In an era in which people - especially millennials - distrust institutions at record rates and believe they are their own best editor or reporter, the ability to simply comb through a primary-source document has considerable appeal.

There is also - as Sherman notes - nowhere to hide for either the candidate or the journalist in a transcript, and the reader knows and likes that. If a reporter asked a dumb question, it shows. And, as has been the case with some of the most popular transcripts in recent weeks, if candidates don't know what they are talking about when it comes to a specific policy (or all of the policies), it shows. (Trump, I am looking squarely at you.) I think of it as the difference between doing a TV hit and appearing on Diane Rehm's [Washington-based news] radio show. You can fake it on one. You can't on the other.

Anthony Gravitte of Geneva, New York, waits for a Donald Trump rally to begin in Rochester. Photo / AP
Anthony Gravitte of Geneva, New York, waits for a Donald Trump rally to begin in Rochester. Photo / AP

Finally, transcripts provide a sort of knocking-down of the fourth wall of journalism and politics, bringing people in a room where they don't usually get to be. What, exactly, did Bob Woodward ask Trump? How did Trump respond? What did Woodward say then? For a group of news consumers, all of that stuff - the mechanics of how both sides do their jobs - is fascinating and compelling. It's the same reason that shows such as House of Cards (Terrible show. Sad!) are popular. People may hate on Washington - okay, DO hate on Washington - but there is something intriguing to them about the nation's capital and its obsession with politics.

Transcripts provide what feels like a genuine experience - of the candidate, the reporters and the whole scene in Washington. In a political world that increasingly feels like a soap opera - or a professional wrestling match - transcripts ground us in some version of reality.

Technology helps, too. You're not just reading the words of the candidates and the reporters interviewing them, you're also commenting on it all, and you're learning and laughing along the way. It enlivens a text in a way that was never so accessible to us before.

What's fascinating to me is that amid the information glut we all face on a daily basis and the instantaneous "skim-tweet-forget it" cycle of news consumption all of that information has wrought, there's a return to one of the most basic sorts of documents. After all, it doesn't get more basic for a reporter than asking questions, writing down the answers and then publishing those answers.

Everything old is new again!

- Washington Post

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