This began as an email I was going to send to a reporter who asked me for comment on the complaints of Bernie Sanders supporters about unfair treatment. I decided to post it. I do realize it will satisfy no one.
Campaign coverage as usual lacks any higher or deeper purpose beyond chronicling the race and figuring out who is likely to win. This purposelessness is the originating problem, in my view. The alternatives that are typically put forward — captured in two over-used abstractions, “issues” and “policy” — do not stir the juices among campaign journalists or inspire creative effort within their organizations.
Who wants to spend their time chronicling the policy proposals of a candidate who is not going to win anyway? No one. And if the candidate is likely to win, the story of how they did it (and what it takes…) is always more exciting to journalists than policy prescriptions that are unlikely to be adopted because they were crafted to gain votes in a presidential election, to sound right to the right groups of people, not to pass Congress after the election.
As long as the available alternatives are posed this way: chronicling the ups and downs of the race and figuring out who’s likely to win — also known as horse race journalism — on one hand, vs. “issues” and “policy” coverage (dutiful business…) on the other, nothing will really change. We will continue to be stuck in these fruitless debates wherein supporters of the candidates who are not winning in the estimation of journalists cry foul because they get less attention, which then makes it harder for them to win.
Bernie Sanders supporters are currently trapped in this catch-22; it enrages them, but it is not unique to their candidate. These complaints will continue to fall on deaf ears (sorry for the cliché) because journalists receiving them actually believe: “If you wanted your candidate to receive more coverage, you should have backed someone who was more likely to win!” But journalists who think that way won’t say it that way because a.) it sounds mean, uncharitable in the extreme, and b.) somewhere they have a bad conscience about surrendering to their own horse race tendencies.
In one breath they think: Who are these people claiming we should give their candidate more coverage? They should have thought of that before they backed an obvious loser! But in the next breath they think: issues, policy, public problem-solving, material differences among the candidates in what they would do if elected… that’s what the election is supposed to be about. We should cover that.
Reflecting for any length of time on this conflict is too painful for intelligent and self-aware journalists. Cognitive dissonance is the most likely result. Who’s gonna win? is of immediate import to the nation and more interesting to the audience, they believe. But what these candidates would do if elected is more valid journalistically, symbolized by a strange word they use for this part of the problem, “substance.” (As against “process.”) Picking between the two — substance vs. process — is hard. They say they do both, but when it comes to determining the portion of coverage that various candidates “deserve” there are no points for being the most substantial. There could be, maybe there should be, but there isn’t in the system as it stands.
Overlaid on this are, of course, the obvious commercial pressures that vastly favor Trump in this election (the handy term for which is “ratings”) and the ancient tests of newsworthiness: the different, the new, the unexpected, the man that bites dog, the spectacular, the OMG, the bizarre. These also favor Trump, hugely. And he’s winning the Republican primary, so he has the trifecta: ratings, OMG and horse race. Good luck moving the press off that!
Purposelessness is the deeper problem, I have said. But the people who produce campaign coverage don’t agree with me. They think this criticism is weird, tone deaf. They know they pay a lot of attention to the horse race, but they don’t apologize for it, because they truly believe: this is what readers, viewers and listeners prefer. The race is exciting! People want to know who’s likely to win. They don’t want to waste their votes on a loser. They want to be brought inside the process, the circus, the show. The high-minded complain, but consumers love the product. No contest.
What I mean by purposelessness is that the producers and authors of campaign coverage would find it hard to answer this question: what are we trying to accomplish here? What’s the ultimate goal of our coverage in 2016? It’s not to elect a particular candidate. (As Jack Shafer said to his colleagues today: “Your job is neither to stop Trump nor advance him.”) It’s not to make the case for the D’s or the R’s. (That’s the job of the parties.) It’s not to win the ratings or the battle for clicks. (Corporate bosses love that, but it’s not what gets political journalists jazzed.)
They could say, and some of them would say, “to equip people to cast an intelligent vote,” but if that were the purpose then it would be no contest in the other direction: “substance” would win over “process” with regularity. (Again those are not my terms, they are native to the campaign press.) Another possible answer would be: to vet these candidates and make sure they and their proposals meet the presidential test. A worthy goal but it has little to do with “who’s gonna win and how are they doing it?” which is a majority of the coverage.
When you put it all together you realize the purposelessness is intentional, or at least functional, it works just enough for everyone to keep the system as it is. Not to be too cute, but it has a purpose. For another way of saying weak on questions of purpose is “strong on advancing no agenda” and in mainstream journalism that’s good… right?
I guess what I’m saying is this: Campaign journalists have a system for determining who gets the most coverage. They have no system for determining who deserves the most coverage.
The justness of campaign journalism will change only when the people who produce it have enough confidence to declare an agenda that is not ideological or political, that does not tilt the field for this candidate or that party but rather instructs the press in where the spotlight belongs. (Example of what I mean.) Until that day, these abstractions will float around — issues, policy, substance, process — and people will continue to get mad.