Is Good Campaign Coverage Possible?
Last night I read three separate critiques of mainstream presidential campaign coverage. Evgenia Peretz’s look back at the outrageous and petty treatment of Al Gore in 2000; Eric Alterman’s column about how the “Big Foot Media” as already crafted the narratives for this election; and Paul Krugman on why he hates political coverage.
I think we can all agree that day-in, day-out campaign coverage often sucks, but the question is why?
There’s a number of reasons, but primarily I think the papers’ entire approach to covering campaigns is hopelessly flawed and puts reporters in a position in which they can’t help but produce trivinalia. Typically, papers assign a reporter to cover a certain candidate, and that reporter spends all day, every day, following the candidate around: going from photo-op to speech to photo-op and hoping to squeeze in some face-time in between. It’s an awful existence, I think. I first got an inkling of this when working as an organizer in Madison, WI during the final days of the Kerry campaign. I went to a big Kerry rally and saw the haggard press corps straggle in after him and sit with their lap-tops listening to a stump speech that by that point they must have heard 100+ times. So, if you’re in that position what do you do? If you sit through endless, mind-numbing hours listening to the candidate spew the same safe inanities, you inevitably start to snoop around for new “angles”. John Kerry has a butler! There are lots of kids on the trail! Al Gore sighed during the debate! The point is that all of this trivial bullshit is just a natural outgrowth of the need to break up the sheer monotony of the campaign.
Then there’s the additional problem that the longer a reporter spends with a campaign, the more likely they’ll develop either a kind of contempt for the candidate and the campaign or a strange version of stockholm syndrome. Clearly this was the case during 2000 and 2004 when the dislike for both Gore and Kerry was palpable. This might be natural and human, but it breeds awful journalism.
Finally, we have the perenial complaint that the coverage focuses on the horse-race and the theater of the campaign and not on the issues. But I don’t really think that’s the fault of reporters. First, they have to file constantly on short deadlines. So even if Obama releases a tax plan one day, and you write a piece about that, that’s still only a one-day story. What do you write about the next day? Why, Obama sniping with Hillary or somesuch. Second of all, consider the imbalance in expertise between a campaign and those who cover it. When Obama releases a tax plan, it’s a product of a team of policy experts, who know the terrain inside and out. But the reporter who has to file the deadline piece about it doesn’t have any expertise on tax policy. So how could their coverage be anything but shallow?
All of these structural flaws have solutions, and herewith my humble recommendations:
1) Rotate reporters. There’s no reason to simply assign a reporter and have them stay with a campaign. It’s not like you need “expertise” to cover a campaign or there’s a steep learning curve. It’s not a domain of knowledge or a proper beat. Any competent reporter can parachute into a campaign and quickly get their bearings. For that reason, papers like the Times should just send a stringer to follow around candidates and file if something big happens, or news breaks. But they shouldn’t have to be constantly filing dispatches about the daily minutiae of the trail. And those stringers should be rotated in and out, until perhaps the final leg of the campaign. I think if that was the set-up, you wouldn’t get stories about John Kerry’s butler.
2) Go more for features and less daily reporting. The Times has been doing this, though, their feature coverage has tended to focused on such burning issues as what Hillary Clinton wrote in letters to a penpal 35 years ago. But it also produced an excellent piece about Giuliani’s fraught relationship with New York City’s black residents. These kind of longer-form, non-deadline pieces are fun to read, and far, far more informative than the daily dispatch.
3) Assign campaign coverage to beat reporters. When Obama released his tax plan. the article that ran in the TImes about the plan was authored by the Obama beat reporter Jeff Zeleny. Zeleny’s a perfectly good political reporter, and he’s been following Obama since ‘03, when he was writing for the Trib, but there’s no earthly reason to think he’s well-equipped to report on a tax plan. Meanwhile, the Times happens to have on staff the Pulizer-Prize-winning David Cay Johnston, who is unquestionably the single best tax reporter in the country. Why wouldn’t you assign him to write the piece about Obama’s tax plan? The same goes for every substantive area of policy. The Post and the Times have reporters who know a lot about environmental policy, health policy, fiscal policy, etc.. Why not have them cover those aspects of the campaign?
I’m sure there are other suggestions others would have. I’d be curious to hear them.