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