How the Political Press Favors the Rich and Famous

Jeff Mitchell / Reuters

Whether one likes or dislikes Chelsea Clinton is beside the point.

Imagine paging through an official handbook at The New York Times or NPR or Columbia University’s journalism school and encountering an entry with these guidelines:

Prospective political candidates: A subject may sometimes warrant coverage as a possible or likely political candidate before he or she officially declares an intention to seek office or files paperwork to formally initiate a run. Such coverage should be reserved for the unusually rich, the widely famous, or the close relative of a person widely known to have held elective office.  

There is not a reputable news organization in America that would formalize that guideline. Yet it might as well be the official standard in the political press, where all manner of coverage flows to nascent careers because the subject is a billionaire, like Ross Perot, or famous, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or kin to a Kennedy or Bush.

The typical journalist is likelier to be a Democrat than a Republican, a liberal than a conservative. But his or her approach to doling out attention to folks who could run for office is best summed up by the Andrews Sisters: “Them that has, gets. Them that don’t, wants.”

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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?

Journalists needn’t embrace the moral logic of Robin Hood to conclude that the best way to inform the public, or advance representative government in the United Staes, is not to supercharge the advantages that rich or famous candidates already enjoy. Indeed, one needn’t even be an egalitarian to see a strong argument for the political press to act as a counterweight to rich and famous candidates, on the logic that to inform the public is to tell them about candidates they might want to know about but don’t, rather than telling them ever more about people with whom they are already familiar, or will obviously have ample opportunity to get to know regardless.

Long before an election, when the primary field for a gubernatorial or presidential race is not settled, why shouldn’t the press alert the public to potential candidates they would never know about if not for enterprising journalism, instead of lavishing coverage on legacies like Chelsea Clinton, George P. Bush, and inevitably, Ivanka Trump?

Cover the rich, famous, and well-connected if and when they file to seek elective office. But until then, I’d rather read about anyone else who might excel at governing.