Everyone Hates How Presidential Campaigns Are Covered

There is widespread agreement the political press suffers from certain pathologies. Here's one way to fix them.

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Is American politics being overrun by carnival barkers? That's the fear expressed by my colleague James Fallows in a recent item. Left to its own inclinations, the political press gives undue attention to "disputes that have more to do with reality-show celebrity than with how Republicans will choose their issues and their candidate," he wrote, citing Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich. Alas, he observed, it's difficult to figure out how candidates ought to be covered. The press "plays too large a role... divining who is and is not a 'serious' contender for the presidency on the basis of its own insider standards," he wrote, but insisted that "we don't fix that problem by letting coverage be driven by people who face insurmountable obstacles... but happen to be celebrities."

That astute, disheartening analysis reaffirms a truth that comes up every four years: there is no easy answer to the question, "How should the political press cover a presidential race?" This despite a status quo that even veteran political reporters have been calling broken for more than a generation. Few recriminations are published this early in the campaign cycle, so it's instructive to look back at 2008, when introspection among political journalists was all the rage. Mark Halperin wrote that a fundamental assumption guiding his coverage -- "that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office" -- turned out to be false. Chris Hayes of The Nation opined that campaign coverage "sucks so much" because reporters and editors tend to be afraid of missing something, so they go around together and write all the same things.

During primary season, the founders of Politico, John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, wrote an especially notable critique of campaign coverage -- including their own -- after most of the establishment press missed the story that Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama, would win New Hampshire:

The loser -- not just of Tuesday's primary but of the 2008 campaign cycle so far -- was us. "Us" is the community of reporters, pundits and prognosticators who so confidently -- and so rashly -- stake our reputations on the illusion that we understand politics and have special insight that allows us to predict the behavior of voters... If the court of public opinion were a real court, the best a defense lawyer could do is plea bargain out of a charge that reporters are frauds in exchange for a signed confession that reporters are fools. New Hampshire was jarring because it offered in highly concentrated form all the dysfunctions and maladies that have periodically afflicted political journalism for years.

The piece proceeds to list the "bogus narratives" of that election season: the "John McCain is dead" story, the "Iowa is all about organization" story (Mike Huckabee, among the least organized candidates, won it), etc. "Politico did its part in promoting several of these flimsy story lines," they admitted. "We used predictive language in stories. We amplified certain trends and muffled the caveat, which perhaps should be printed with every story, like a surgeon general's warning: 'We don't know what will happen until voters vote.'"

It's striking to read that piece beside a Wednesday article on Newt Gingrich, also published in Politico. Voters won't begin choosing among candidates until February 6, 2012, the date of the Iowa caucuses. Politico nevertheless has the former Speaker of the House "fighting for his life" due to recent missteps. "It's not clear whether that course correction has come too late," Alexander Burns writes. "Before Gingrich's evening mea culpa, there were growing signs that his gaffe -- undermining his own party by calling Ryan's much-touted Medicare plan too 'radical' to become law on NBC's 'Meet the Press' -- had already dealt him a near-fatal blow."

This story is instructive insofar as it shows the tension between the lesson Fallows wants to teach us (stop paying so much attention to people like Gingrich who are not going to become president) and the ones Harris and VandeHei learned last cycle (political reporters aren't very good at predicting the future). As if that weren't enough, there's also Jay Rosen's press criticism to contend with: "Who cares if you are good at anticipating events that will unroll in clear fashion without you?"

Like Fallows, and many other journalists, I watched with dismay as Donald Trump gamed the political press for his own aggrandizement. Perhaps candidates shouldn't be covered until they officially declare, I thought for awhile -- but wouldn't it be silly to ignore an obvious candidate like Mitt Romney merely because he hasn't declared? Maybe the problem is our normally sound notion that conflict is inherently newsworthy, I thought, and that it must fall away before our focus improves. Ultimately, every rule of thumb has exceptions, I've concluded, and there are so many pathologies to avoid that they're often in conflict with one another. But I do have something to add.

One way out of what seems like an intractable problem is to forget the focus of campaign coverage for a moment, and re-imagine the time horizon over which it unfolds. The political press covers campaigns over many months, adding to the story a little bit at a time as if everyone is following along. It couldn't be otherwise in the days when TV news, radio broadcasts, and newspapers were newly produced each day -- even though most voters ignored the bulk of campaigns, and still do. In the Web era, however, it is possible to more closely align the output of the political press with the needs of voters. Take Ezra Klein's idea about how he'd like to cover policy-making:

I would begin each major legislative battle by detailing a few of my smartest, clearest writers to create a hyper-linked, fairly comprehensive, summary of the basic legislation. That summary would be updated throughout the process, and it would be linked in every single story written on the topic. As reader questions came in, and points of confusion arose, it would be expanded, so by the end, you'd have a document that was current, comprehensive, navigable and responsive to the questions people actually had about the legislation. Telling people what just happened is undeniably important, but given that most people aren't following that closely, we in the media need to do a better job of telling people what's been happening.

Couldn't that work for campaigns too?

There is some precedent for media "zooming out" successfully. When the financial crisis happened, the folks at This American Life produced an hour long explainer called The Giant Pool of Money that gave listeners a big picture understanding of events. It is the most popularĀ  program that successful show has ever produced. Praising it, Rosen explained why he ignored financial news prior to hearing the episode, and afterward became a dedicated consumer of such stories:

In the normal hierarchy of journalistic achievement the most "basic" acts are reporting today's news and providing current information, as with prices, weather reports and ball scores. We think of "analysis," "interpretation," and also "explanation" as higher order acts... In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena, and make a note of it. Then I would receive some more news and perhaps keep an even closer eye on the story. I might then turn to an "analysis" piece for more on the possible consequences, or perhaps a roundtable with experts...
I thus graduate from the simpler to the more sophisticated forms of news as I learn more about a potentially far-reaching development. That's the way it works... right? Wrong! For there are some stories-and the mortgage crisis is a great example-where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop.

More often than we realize, political journalists make their readers feel ill-informed, overwhelmed, and out of the loop -- or else confused at the breathless coverage dedicated to what seems like a minor campaign development. So who is going to invent the best format for what amounts to a presidential election explainer? Is it a landing page for all candidates that is richer than anything we've yet seen? A wiki? Something we've yet to conceive? Whatever it looks like, aiming to cover campaigns as a whole, rather than focusing on how they unfold day to day, is the most realistic way to prevent ourselves from wasting several weeks on the Donald Trumps of the world.

True, some newspapers already offer candidate landing pages, but the press as a whole, and even these publications in particular, signal to their audiences in most every other way that breaking news is most important (his campaign is on the rocks now!). I'd argue the relationship ought to be reversed -- the totality of a candidate ought to be the focus, and small events ought to be incorporated into our understanding of whether he or she ought to be elected president, rather than the likelihood of their winning. The Web already offers much of the relevant information, just as it contained all the necessary information about the financial crisis. What's needed is for someone to come along, as This American Life did, to organize, distill, and re-frame.

The press would then be freed from playing so consequential a role in deciding who and what is going to dominate coverage. Information on all contenders could be built out without letting the charlatans dominate headlines. There would even be a built in traffic incentive to be the outlet that builds the best page for the worthy, lesser known candidate who catches fire with the public. As yet, this isn't the way we do it. Come 2016, however, things might be very different.

Image credit: Reuters