The Problem of Covering Colorful but Doomed Campaigns

Three weeks ago, just after Barack Obama's "long-form birth certificate" press conference (and boy does that seem like a long time ago), I argued that a lot of the blame for the whole embarrassing* "birther" diversion lay with the press.  I meant not just the familiar general foibles of the media but the specific inflation of Donald Trump's "campaign," including covering his zany proposals ("let's just take Iraq's oil!") and birther-style allegations as if they represented something real:

>>5) Speaking of carnival barkers: Every member of the political press knows that the chance of Donald Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States is zero. I say that the chance of Sarah Palin becoming president is extremely low but greater than zero. I will take any bet at any odds against Trump becoming president, for reasons I'll boil down to this: the same circumstances that would make Obama so vulnerable that a Trump could beat him (economic, political, military, or social chaos of any kind you want to imagine), would simultaneously motivate the Republican party to choose a "real" candidate with the best chance of winning the election and running the government. That is, if the Republicans think they have a serious chance to win, they're not going to blow that chance with Trump.<<

Newt Gingrich's campaign [AP photo below] presents the national press with the next version of this challenge.


Every member of the political press corps knows that the chance of Newt Gingrich becoming the 45th President of the United States is zero. I am a great believer in the unpredictability of politics, but -- I will take any bet at any odds against Newt Gingrich assuming office in 2013. The problem is not just the conundrum that faced Trump: the very circumstances that would make Obama so weak that someone like Trump or Gingrich could beat him, would prevent the Republican party from blowing that opportunity by nominating a Gingrich or Trump. The deeper problem for Gingrich is that, shaky as his support might be on the left, the people who really hate him are in his own party. Viz. the fights that have broken out in his "campaign's" first days over his criticism of the GOP/Ryan budget, his advocacy of the individual mandate in medical care plans, etc. (By contrast, many Democrats have had affable relations with him over the years. I knew and liked him during the "defense reform" campaigns of the 1980s.) He last ran for office in 1998. And to say that Gingrich has "personal issues" that could cause problems in a campaign -- well, let's just say, he has them.

Plus: At a more mundane operational level, the indispensable trait in a national campaign is discipline. Staying on message, day after day, no matter how tired you are, no matter how provoked, no matter how bored at hearing yourself say the same things time and again. Avoiding errors, avoiding surprises, sticking to the agreed-on and vetted formulations since anything else represents a "shift" and can create problems -- all this is what has to be done. The most appealing thing about Gingrich as a political figure is precisely his spontaneity and indiscipline. That can make him more interesting to listen to, because more unpredictable, than someone else on the 1000th iteration of The Stump Speech, but ultimately the standard stump speech is what it takes.

So the press faces a chance to learn from the lessons of the Trump bubble. Each of these men, Gingrich and Trump, is a familiar national figure; neither of them will be the Republican nominee. Because of celebrity and personal pizzazz, they naturally are more tempting to cover than other longshots who are also not going to win the nomination. But if Gingrich coverage turns into Carnival Barkers Part Deux, we'll end up giving headline attention to disputes that have more to do with reality-show celebrity than with how Republicans will choose their issues and their candidate. The trick of balance, therefore, is to be fair to Gingrich and his arguments as long as he is in the race, much as should be the case with Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and others, while not letting what happened with Trump happen again.

Yes, I'm aware of the danger here. The dreaded mainstream press already plays too large a role as anointer, "mentioner," filter, and certifier, divining who is and is not a "serious" contender for the presidency on the basis of its own insider standards. This is the problem that the likes of Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, and others have long complained about, with good reason. But we don't fix that problem by adding a new one, and letting coverage be driven by people who face insurmountable obstacles to becoming president but happen to be celebrities.

On the other hand, if it's another round of the carnival -- well, that will be interesting too.
* As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, I guessed that even the long-firm birth certificate wouldn't change the minds of many hard-core birthers. I am very glad that real-world results are different and that, on this issue at least, actual evidence seems to have had some effect.

Drop-down image credit: Reuters

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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