A few things to keep in mind when you’re angry, frustrated, or bored with campaign coverage.

Mar.
10
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.

20 Comments

  1. Mainstream equals “corporate” in my view.

    When my dad started as a journalist, the pay was the same as a teacher’s. (And you needed a masters degree for both.)

    A lot has changed since then. Huge corporations consolidated the media. Fewer journalists make bigger salaries. And if they don’t toe the corporate line, they’d better be elite or they get cashiered. They can be useless lying hacks, and have nice paychecks for pushing the corporate agenda. (See Marc Thiessen, Washington Post)

    Hasn’t worked out the same for teachers, though. Plenty of them still, and the pay has not kept up.

    Funny, you can find Fred Hiatt and company pushing the education “reform” agenda constantly. Those damned teachers! Taking too much $$$ that should be going into the pockets of the richest few (my employers).

    That’s a bit of a ramble, but I’ve seen it all since I first managed to read the WaPo in 3rd grade. (Hey, there’s my daddy!)

    Craven or corrupt? CORRUPT.
    ~

  2. bystander says:

    Barry Sanders supporters…

    I quit right here; for – I hope – obvious reasons.

    • bystander says:

      Ah. Went to tweet you. Saw note re: correction. Had page in the queue but had just begin to read…

    • bystander says:

      I was prepared to be annoyed, but I’m not. Pretty much sums it up for me. My only regret is for the citizen-audience who thinks they’re getting “substance” from these horse race/process outlets when clearly they aren’t. Possibly as well as Sanders is doing w/scant coverage is a testament to that citizen-audience. I might be selling citizens short.

  3. Jay Rosen says:

    An exchange I just had with a New York Times person on Twitter. Some paraphrase, but no exaggeration:

    Times person: The most important qualities in a president are judgment, character, smarts… not position papers.

    Me: Okay, but who said anything about the surpassing importance of position papers?

    Times person: That was my shorthand for “everything that’s not horse race.”

    Me: I recognize the shorthand, but since my piece explicitly comments on the futility of the distinction between process and substance, horse race vs.policy, it’s a little odd to hear that from you.

    Times person: I just skimmed it. It was kinda long.

    Whereupon three New York Times people have a good laugh.

    The tone? Contempt.

    https://twitter.com/palafo/status/708069202423365633

    https://twitter.com/jswatz/status/708079039819419648

  4. NattyB says:

    Sharp take though I think you overlook the “structural issues” with respect to the journalists and their respective make-ups which inadvertently causes them to pick winners, but, again, all in service of clicks and pageviews.

    Carl Beijer explores this point in detail in this post here, which in explaining “why Bernie’s having trouble with Black people” is more a function of name recognition (which he supports empirically) and how establishment structures coincide to minimize his campaign (without realizing it).

    Realize it’s the busy season but would appreciate your input on it as I found it elucidating and informative. http://www.carlbeijer.com/2016/02/black-voters-and-2016-primaries-part-2.html

  5. runste says:

    “Purpose is what we’re striving for. We must have purpose. We mustn’t be purposeless. We must not exhibit purposelessness. We must be purposelessnessless.”

    Sir Marcus Browning (Rowan Atkinson) http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2rr3m8

  6. Chris Liss says:

    I think this is all true and at the same time Sanders supporters (of which I am one) have reason to feel it IS unique to him. Overlaid on the horse-race emphasis is the “savvy” angle you’ve described in earlier posts. Not only was Clinton the frontrunner (and celebrity) and therefore got more coverage, but also Sanders is manifestly the candidate for the naive rubes who believe the system can be changed. So it’s compounded in this case – not only was she winning (thanks in large part to the corrupt DNC, the early southern-state primaries and her name recognition), but Sanders platform was dismissed out of hand by anyone who values savviness as a trait, i.e., most of the mainstream press.

    So beyond simply saying: “The math favors Clinton for x, y and z reasons,” there was a snide, dismissive tone to the columns, much like you encountered on Twitter. Then compound that with 70-90% of Times commenters and readers, being pro-Sanders and destroying the column authors in the comments, and I think they dug in even deeper, i.e, the contrast between the naive believers and savvy journalists became even more stark. Throw in that many of the corporations that own the outlets have donated to HRC’s campaign and/or fear the tax consequences of a Sanders presidency, and I think the Sanders supporters have a legitimate gripe beyond the phenomenon you wrote about.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      “The Sanders platform was dismissed out of hand by anyone who values savviness as a trait, i.e., most of the mainstream press.”

      I think that’s a fair point. As especially good example was this piece, but of course it’s only one of many.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/20/us/politics/bernie-sanders-falls-behind-in-a-race-centered-on-security.html

      “Mr. Sanders has many strengths, but moxie is not one of them. He speaks the language of a high-minded policy wonk, not a street fighter. Gutsy aggressiveness has been so lacking in his campaign that it was one reason the news media paid so much attention on Friday when his advisers went to court against Democratic National Committee officials after they punished the Sanders campaign over a data breach…”

    • A Sharon says:

      I’ve always felt Sanders was doomed for the simple fact he isn’t even a Democrat. Even now, on the debates they have him labeled an independent (I-VT). I would expect savvy journalists would better understand that national party politics is still about institutional relationships. All Clinton needs is to get 1 more primary-decided delegate then Sanders and the party establishment, which Sanders has always kept at length, would naturally go for Clinton.

  7. Terry Heaton says:

    Isn’t this really just Daniel Hallin’s spheres ringing true? In my (unpublished) book, I make the case that what we created at CBN in the 80s has become the angry mob of today, and I continue to assert that the final narrative of the 2016 election will be the fuel of that angry mob. It has gone unreported for decades, because a substantial portion of the electorate honestly feels that the press doesn’t represent their views in matters of public policy or culture. They represent the sphere of deviancy, and they’re made as hell about it.

    That they are largely white Americans should come as no surprise to anyone, for anglo-Americans – especially men – have been the enemy of every social movement since the 60s. They are afraid, and fear commonly produces untoward behavior. In the candidacy of Donald Trump, they’ve found a voice that resonates, and like it or not, this fear must be addressed head-on, if we’re ever to reclaim the unity that our flag stands for. To me, this is the real crime of the electoral press.

    In his remarkable book, Why Liberals Win The Culture Wars (even when they lose elections), Stephen Prothero points out that culture wars are always started by conservatives, because they’ve either lost something or fear they’re about to lose something. That the press doesn’t include this in its coverage of cultural matters – it’s not deserving of legitimate debate status – is exactly why this anger is omnipresent in the U.S. today.

    It’s a complicated fruit, but it most certainly includes horserace coverage at core.

  8. Joe says:

    Sanders is the man biting the dog and still gets less coverage than the institutional choice, Clinton, and what coverage he does get is often derisive. NYT Nd WaPo are as much a part of the Ancien Regime as Wall Street or the DNC.

  9. Andre Dabrowski says:

    Horserace coverage is also more compatible with the View from Nowhere.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      That’s what I was getting at when I wrote:

      “For another way of saying weak on questions of purpose is ‘strong on advancing no agenda’ and in mainstream journalism that’s good… right?”

      Also see this: http://pressthink.org/2011/08/why-political-coverage-is-broken/

      This basic message—we’re innocent because we’re uninvolved—isn’t something to be stated once, in a professional code of conduct or an “about” page. It has to be said many times a day in the course of writing and reporting the news. The genre known as He said, she said journalism is perhaps the most familiar example. But so is horse race journalism, in which the master narrative for covering an election is: who’s ahead? Journalists will tend to favor descriptions of political life that are a.) true, in that verifiable facts support the story; and b.) convenient for the continuous production of their own innocence.

      One of the great attractions to horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to play up their detachment. Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession.

    • ron says:

      Absolutely.

      Horse-race journalism is also more compatible with laziness.

      “X said he will do this, Y said he will do that. We have no way of knowing if either statement made any sense and it would be taking sides for us to tell you even if we did. Good luck finding the rest of the info and figuring it out for yourself. In the meantime, X got in a zinger, but Y looked weak, so X wins.”

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Getting into substance will require a reporter to become familiar with a subject which may be new to him, and to make a reasoned judgment and come to a conclusion. Then, in effect, try to sell it as valid and true.

    So then you go off and find an expert. Whom you have to pick. On what do you make your choice? Economics? Well, there’s Krugman…or perhaps one of Milton Friedman’s students.

    One of the benefits of horse race journalism is that it’s quick and easy. Nobody’s going to give you a hard time for picking the wrong economist. Which will probably be the only thing anybody remembers of your three days’ brain-busting efforts, anyway, since something else will be in the headlines.

  11. Loefler says:

    Excellent summary above by Jay Rosen of the woeful campaign coverage situation.

    It should prompt a broader look at American politics generally. Our News media support this continuous campaign circus for the reasons Rosen specifies, but why do Americans generally… buy into all this superficiality?

    When Rosen notes: “…you realize the purposelessness is intentional, or at least functional, it works just enough for everyone to keep the system as it is.” — that observation also applies strongly to the government/Republican/Democrat establishment. That establishment is heavily invested in the status quo and in the illusion that average citizens indeed control the government and its course. The routine Bread & Circuses of American campaigns and elections are quite deliberate tools to distract the populace from serious issues of governance– and those tools works very well… with full cooperation of the news media.

    Bernie Sanders is, of course, trying to get that distress message across in his calls for a political revolution; Trump too, to a much lesser extent.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Loefler.
    Why do you think the American people buy into this? If nothing else is on television or in the papers, there is nothing else to “buy”. Ignoring it isn’t “buying” it.
    That there are no alternatives is another issue.

  13. Jazzaloha says:

    “To equip people to cast an intelligent vote;” “to vet these candidates and make sure they and their proposals meet the presidential test.” Man,how I wish these guided and drove campaign coverage. How many other people would feel this way? Enough to turn a good profit? I’m worried this wouldn’t be the case.

  14. this is nice article thanks for sharing with us.