The prospective candidate who is unusually honest, or decent, or shows skill governing at the local level, is almost never the object of glowing profiles that serve to introduce them to a broader public, or “will they run for higher office” speculation.
That isn’t because journalists are averse to those qualities, or driven entirely by ratings or clicks. Rather, it is an unintended and unfortunate byproduct of an approach that Jay Rosen calls “the view from nowhere,” an approach intended to guard against bias.
Adherents focus purely on what is in politics rather than what ought to be.
The approach is seductive. It offers the illusion that coverage decisions are free of ideology. A reporter who focuses on what is, rather than what ought to be, is not responsible for the fact that folks with money, or fame, or connections wield power, and are therefore advantageously positioned to win elections. In 2000, George W. Bush really was much more likely to win the Republican nomination, by virtue of his political lineage and fundraising connections, than any number of would be candidates. Donald Trump really was better positioned than Evan McMullin.
At the same time, political journalists err if they think it is possible to observe and report on what is without affecting it. George W. Bush was better positioned in large part because the political press acted as a multiplier for his advantages in name recognition and fundraising, treating them as causes for lots of coverage, even though the vast majority of Americans, across ideologies, would agree that it ought to be that neither fortune nor fame nor family ties determine a candidate’s electoral prospects.
It ought to be that a person with compelling experience, or exemplary character traits, or leadership skills get at least a fair shot at persuading the public to support them. Instead, the view from nowhere entrenches the status quo, even if it is pernicious or nonsensical. Love or hate her, Chelsea Clinton would not even be mentioned as a prospective candidate for public office if her parents were in any other profession. Why are journalists allowing themselves to fuel dynastic trends in American life?
The political press should recalibrate.
Sure, revealed preference confirms a public desire to read about the already famous. And the outlet that spends time and resources covering them can always plausibly argue that they are not shaping the interests of the public, but reflecting them without judgment. The people might want Chelsea or Ivanka. They wanted George W. Bush and John Quincy Adams! Yet the people could not have rejected Jeb! more decisively.
How do the outlets that covered him so thoroughly justify their approach to themselves? Who might have vied successfully for the presidency with half as much free press?