Harvard Political Review: You earned your master’s degree in journalism from New York University. What have you learned out in the field that you didn’t learn in the classroom?
Peter Hamby: When I was at NYU I did print—magazine—journalism. I wanted to be a long-form magazine writer. But when I graduated, like a lot of my fellow graduates from journalism school in the early aughts, it was kind of hard finding a job.
I moved home for a few months with my parents and put out a bunch of feelers and got an entry level job at CNN as a news assistant in the Washington bureau. News assistants can do anything—they run prompter, do guest greetings, work in our feeds area (which is all of our incoming signals), whatever. I learned the nuts and bolts of TV news by working at CNN. That’s the stuff I really didn’t pick up in journalism school.
HPR: Since joining CNN, how have you seen the network evolve?
PH: YouTube didn’t exist when I started. That’s ridiculous. Twitter didn’t exist. And that just completely changed everything.
When I worked on [The Situation Room], I would often ask people in their 20s and 30s, “Do you watch CNN?” And their response was, “No.” And it wasn’t that they didn’t watch CNN, they just didn’t watch TV news. Whereas older people did. And that trend has continued to where young people get their news on their iPhones now. CNN has started steering a lot of resources towards our digital site. I could write a story for CNN.com that gets a million page views, and that might be more people seeing that story than seeing the story on TV.
HPR: There’s a common perception that Fox News is on the right, MSNBC on the left, and CNN somewhere in the middle. Have you seen the network responding to those attitudes?
PH: I think our response has been the natural, obvious one, which is, in a time of increasing polarization politically in the media, we are a news organization that has financial resources, and we are going to continue telling straight stories. We cover everyone all the time. We have people all over the world.
I spent the last five years covering the Republican party in great detail, traveling all over the country. I’ve been at dozens of events around the country where I’m not just the only TV reporter but the only reporter there, covering a GOP event. And people ask, “Where’s Fox News? We watch Fox.” And I say, “Fox isn’t here, but we’re here. We’re covering you.” And I’m glad I work at a place that has that kind of financial muscle to cover the entire world.
The only rational, logical answer to MSNBC and Fox News is to serve the market of people who want unfiltered, unbiased news, and I think we do that.
HPR: Is there anything you wish you could change about the current cable news landscape?
PH: It’s a challenge to be a 24-hour news channel because you just have to fill so much time. Again, we have the resources to do it. It’s not just cable, it’s the whole news cycle that is just so accelerated today. You could work for the Washington Post, you could work for CNN, you could work for BuzzFeed. Because of Twitter, frankly, I think we sort of move at a much faster clip than we used to.
So I could criticize cable news and say, “I wish we spent more time on stories and issues, doing a 10-minute piece instead of a two minute piece.” But the entire media is sort of moving in that direction.
Again, this goes back to CNN’s resources. We’re a huge company. We’re profitable and we have lots of reporters. We have people covering the day-to-day, minute-to-minute news cycle, but we also have lots of reporters doing investigative stuff, step-back stuff.
For instance, my beat is only political campaigns. That’s kind of a cool, narrow beat. A lot of people at news organizations who cover campaigns also have to cover Capitol Hill and the White House. Those are great things, but we have enough people that we can narrow down specifics. We have a really good technology, social media reporter. We also have really amazing Capitol Hill reporters. So I think we’re reacting appropriately to the changes in the news cycle.
HPR: How has your worked changed as online media platforms become much more prevalent?
PH: I wrote this paper last semester here about how Twitter is changing the political news system. And Ben Smith, who’s the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, made a really smart point. He was talking about the notion of a “day story,” like “Here’s what happened today on the campaign.” It’s a 1,200 word piece that was built for the front page of a newspaper.
But people who are consuming their news on their iPhone, for instance, are reading it in a completely different format and processing information differently and, frankly, just looking for time to kill sometimes. If they’re waiting in line at Starbucks, do they have time, or the patience—I wish they did, but they don’t sometimes—to read a 1,500 word article about the alternative minimum tax? But they do have the patience for, perhaps, a “listicle” or “Five Takeaways from Hillary Clinton’s Speech Today”—that sort of easier way to process information on your phone.
That doesn’t mean that stuff has to be dumb; it can be smart. I wrote a piece about Wendy Davis, who’s running for governor in Texas, a few weeks ago, and it was technically a listicle, like “Six Reasons Wendy Davis Can Win as a Democrat in Texas,” which is a little bit provocative because it’s a Republican state. That was a listicle, but it was full of research and interviews, and I got good feedback on it. I think the form of news has changed based on the device.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo Credit: CNN