How to Fix Our Flawed Election Coverage

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In presidential contests, the press regularly elevates candidates for all the wrong reasons

The Trump full.jpg

My colleague James Fallows is understandably dismayed by the American media's coverage of Donald Trump, the entrepreneur, reality TV star and occasional bankrupt who may or may not run for president. "Perhaps the media types who have been paying attention to Trump and his braying will stop to think about what they've actually been doing," he writes. "Conceivably there will be a moment of recoil about the unworthy, irrational indignity of this stage of national life. But I'm not holding my breath."

It is bizarre that an opportunistic publicity hound is shaping the national discourse. But is a "moment of recoil" among journalists the needed remedy? For the most part, Trump's enablers are either utterly shameless, or else they're already disgusted by the pathologies of their profession but feel powerless to change them. There are even conscientious journalists who feel a responsibility to cover the man. "Donald Trump Is Now The GOP Frontrunner For President," Slate reports. Says Jonathan Chait at The New Republic: "I've been highly skeptical of the idea that Donald Trump is really planning to run for president, or that he would stand any chance at all of winning if he does. But I'm starting to treat the possibility just a bit more seriously now."

That brings us closer to the core question: What standard should journalists use when deciding which presidential candidates to take seriously? Forget shame. What's required is a press corps that rethinks its role in the nomination process. The dirty little secret of political journalism is that right now a lot of broadcasters, writers, and editors are just thoughtlessly going along with the herd. I submit that a little more thoughtfulness would result in a lot better coverage.

Here are some of the problems with the status quo. 1) Name recognition doesn't correlate with good leadership skills, but it affords a tremendous advantage in the nominating process. 2) There is an incentive for some people to launch fake bids for the presidency because the attention it garners adds to their celebrity, and ours is a society where that is as much a commodity as anything. 3) Hot button issues that bear little on our future attract far more attention than hugely important issues certain to impact America for decades to come. 4) Early polls of relatively uninformed voters play an out-sized roll in shaping who is deemed to be a viable candidate -- and once those judgments are made, they are prone to become self-fulfilling prophecies, as all save known pols are denied the media attention necessary to succeed.

Simple fixes can't remedy all of these pathologies. Even so, the measures I am about to suggest would improve the way we select presidents.

A) Journalists should reconsider their role. Especially early in primary season, it is much more important for the press to inform the public about its options than to obsess endlessly about front-runners. Strange as it sounds, the political press could learn from the folks writing in the travel and food sections. What's that? You've stumbled onto a relatively unknown, under-appreciated find that everyone would love if only they knew about it? Besides, there's nothing as pointless as horse race predictions issued many months before elections.

B) Especially early on, it would be nice if journalists gave weight to viability metrics other than name recognition, fund-raising capacity, and public opinion polls (all of which are often closely related). Corporations always leave open the possibility that the product of the future is something presently unknown to the masses. What if The New York Times, The Huffington Post and National Review all convened small focus groups open only to relatively unknown candidates? Small gatherings of informed voters could evaluate candidates up close, weighing their relevant experience and hearing their takes on the issues in intense sessions that might reveal individuals worthy of wider attention.

"The more I have observed American politics, the more I am aware that long shots do come true here," Andrew Sullivan writes. "And I should say that despite Trump's manifest unsuitability for high office, I prefer a system where a total outsider has a chance to break in from time to time rather than the more closed parliamentary systems of Europe." But it would be nice if our long-shot outsiders occasionally came to our attention by some method other than the press elevating whatever really rich C-list celebrity declared himself interested in the White House.

Is that really the best non-official process we can devise?

C) Before a candidate is paid daily or weekly attention in election coverage, he or she should have to declare as a participant in the race. Enough of this "I'm going to act like I'm running but I won't officially decide until June." A convention whereby only declared candidates were taken seriously would help guard against folks using the most important election in America as a personal publicity tool.

These proposals would hardly be cure-alls. In fact, I offer them as tentative suggestions -- the conventions that govern how we cover presidential races ought to be the subject of more debate, and I'll eagerly revise my take if warranted. But it is simply wrong to imagine that we're somehow consigned to the status quo -- or that the current proxies we have for deciding whether someone is presidential material are good ones. Is anyone impressed by the candidates now being elevated?

Image credit: Reuters / Steve Marcus


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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