In 2012, Celebrity Trumps Substance

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Political reporters insist that lesser known candidates are ignored because they're not viable - but proceed to cover celebrity billionaires as if they are
gary johnson.jpg

In presidential contests, the American public is actually more sober-minded and cautious than you'd think observing election coverage. The average voter isn't particularly well-informed. But he shows a certain savvy in his aversions. Take the occasional "rich guy" candidates who seek high office. It doesn't matter how much money a Ross Perot or Steve Forbes lavishes on his campaign. It won't buy him the election, or even come close. Whatever you think of those men in particular, skepticism of billionaires who buy up lots of media time with personal wealth is a healthy democratic impulse.

But the press treats celebrity billionaires like viable candidates, all evidence to the contrary, acting as if the American public hasn't repeatedly expressed this aversion in past races. Look at Donald Trump. Yes, he's a national joke, but he's been given a lot more attention as a contender for the presidency than a lot of folks who've served multiple terms in the Senate or a statehouse.

And the American people would never elect him!

I've noted before that I wish Gary Johnson, a successful former governor from New Mexico, would garner more press attention. It seems to me that he'd be a far better standard bearer for the Tea Party than a lot of other contenders vying for that role, and personally I'd welcome it if one of his signature issues - pushing for an end to the ruinous war on drugs - received more attention. Sometimes I'll even ask other political journalists, "Why don't you cover guys like him more?"

In reply, they sound very reasonable, explaining that he doesn't really have a chance of winning the GOP nomination, let alone the White House. Don't get me wrong. I'd never bet against that analysis. He is a second tier candidate, and likely to remain so. But this is the same political press that exhaustively covers Donald Trump and Michelle Bachmann. Is Gary Johnson really less likely to be elected president than those two?

I don't think so.

Even when Americans err in their presidential choices, they don't do so in the direction of conspiracy theorists or angry bomb-throwers. Afforded equal time in the press, I have no doubt that Johnson could win a primary campaign against Trump or Bachmann. But he won't ever be given equal press coverage. Being in the second-tier of candidates becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The political press must make coverage decisions in a world with limited editorial resources. In doing so, no metric is perfect - some undeserving candidates will be elevated, while other deserving candidates won't get their due. But those should be the close cases. What we're seeing now is ludicrous. It's as if the financial ability to one day launch a quixotic, ultimately failed third-party bid for the White House itself compels the press to cover your campaign from day one.

If viability is guiding coverage, is this how it ought to be defined? And I'll bet if editors and reporters really pondered their editorial decision-making, many of them would realize that Trump and his ilk don't garner attention in proportion to their viability as presidential candidates so much as their ability to drive page views. There isn't anything wrong with writing stories on people about whom the audience wants to read... unless those stories masquerade as campaign coverage, and crowd out pieces about candidates the people might want to vote for if only they knew more about them.

The 2012 election is still a long way off. And political reporters should take that as an opportunity to profile lesser known candidates who might be worthy of greater attention. Instead the focus is on celebrities who deserve none.

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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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