A new epithet has entered the political lexicon: “theater criticism.” Since the 1980s, wrote Charles Homans in The New York Times Magazine in August, American journalists have been eviscerating candidates for saying things that journalists deem bad politics, whether or not these “gaffes” really matter. Thus, they have been “practicing a kind of theater criticism as much as political reporting.”
Earlier this month, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie panned the media’s response to Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment. Instead of asking whether Trump’s supporters actually held racist views, Bouie argued, many commentators practiced “theater criticism—an analysis of how the remarks look, how they might play with a broader audience.” And last Friday, Paul Krugman excoriated campaign reporters for “abdicating responsibility for fact-checking entirely, and replacing it with theater criticism,” adding that “theater criticism is the job of theater critics; news reporting should tell the public what really happened, not be devoted to speculation about how other people might react to what happened.”
I understand the sentiment. Donald Trump is the most shamelessly dishonest major-party presidential nominee in modern American history. If journalists don’t call out his lies, they’re doing their readers and viewers a profound disservice.
Still, Krugman’s wrong. Truth-telling is essential, but there’s a place for “theater criticism” too. That’s because campaigns are, in part, theater. They’re not only a contest of facts and ideas; they’re also a contest of emotion and self-presentation. Krugman and Bouie worry that by discussing how something “plays,” journalists are contributing to this unfortunate reality. Fair enough. But the unfortunate reality will remain, no matter what journalists do. And journalists need to try to explain it. Should it have mattered that viewers preferred John F. Kennedy in the first presidential debate of 1960 because Richard Nixon looked sweaty and unshaven? No. But it did, and had journalists ignored that fact, they would have forfeited their responsibility to explain politics in the television age.
It’s OK that journalists try to figure out why candidates win, and not merely whether they ought to. The problem is that the two subjects are often muddled, especially on TV. Too often, television commentators cite polls showing that Americans don’t trust Hillary Clinton as evidence that she has a problem telling the truth. They conflate the descriptive and normative. Discussing the public’s distrust of Hillary Clinton is appropriate. That distrust can tell us a lot about the impact of conservative media, about the way Americans view career politicians, and about the way Americans view women in power.
But that conversation should be separate from a conversation about whether Hillary Clinton actually is truthful. The two require a different skill set. A beat reporter who has travelled the country interviewing ordinary citizens is well positioned to discuss the perception of Clinton’s truthfulness. The discussion of Clinton’s actual truthfulness, by contrast, requires journalists who genuinely understand how government officials use email, which laws govern that behavior, how Clinton’s behavior deviated from the norm, and how honestly she described it. And it requires journalists willing to declare certain things true and false, as opposed to explaining why Americans perceive certain things to be true and false.
Donald Trump’s candidacy makes fact-checking more essential in this election than ever before. But it makes “theater criticism” more essential too. It’s essential because it’s now clear that a significant chunk of Americans cannot be fact-checked out of supporting a flagrantly dishonest man. Journalists can scream “liar” ever more loudly. I hope they do. But many Americans either don’t believe the media’s fact-checking, or do believe it but don’t much care. Explaining that is a journalistic responsibility, too.