It isn't them, it's you
Every so often, a political reporter will lament the sorry state of the profession and its proclivity toward shallow, substance-free news reports that devote more attention to the horse race than to health care.
These lamentations often share certain characteristics: a focus on the failings of other reporters, or of the profession as a whole, while overlooking the reporter's own shortcomings; a suggestion that journalists are powerless to avoid covering nonsense rather than substance; and, most importantly, a scapegoat.
Time's Mark Halperin recently named a new scapegoat in an op-ed published in The New York Times: Richard Ben Cramer, author of a narrative of the 1988 presidential campaign titled What It Takes. Halperin wrote:
MORE than any other book, Richard Ben Cramer's ''What It Takes,'' about the 1988 battle for the White House, influenced the way I cover campaigns.
I'm not alone. The book's thesis -- that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office -- has shaped the universe of political coverage.
Voters are bombarded with information about which contender has ''what it takes'' to be the best candidate. Who can deliver the most stirring rhetoric? Who can build the most attractive facade? Who can mount the wiliest counterattack? Whose life makes for the neatest story? Our political and media culture reflects and drives an obsession with who is going to win, rather than who should win.
Other than the Bible, there may not be a book that has been more widely read among Washington, D.C., operatives, activists, and reporters than What it Takes. I first read it at the impressionable age of 17 on the recommendation of my high school government teacher. I enjoyed the book, as did most of the people with whom I have discussed it over the years. Cramer is a gifted writer; his description of George H.W. Bush awkwardly bouncing a ceremonial first pitch at the Houston Astrodome is vivid enough that I can still see the event like it was yesterday -- even though I wasn't there and first read Cramer's description of it 15 years ago.
But Cramer's memorable assessment that, in contrast to Ronald Reagan, "at any one moment ... Bush looks like a dork" certainly didn't lead me to believe that presidential candidates were best assessed on such grounds.
Honestly, I can't imagine anybody coming to such a conclusion. But that's what Mark Halperin claims: that he and his colleagues have "too long allowed ourselves to be beguiled by What It Takes" -- and that because of the book, they not only focus on style over substance in covering campaigns, they actually believe that style is more important.
Maybe What it Takes really is to blame.
But it is worth remembering that before Halperin fingered Richard Ben Cramer's pernicious book for the decline of modern political journalism, reporters like Halperin tended to assign most of the blame to Matt Drudge.
One such reporter was ... Mark Halperin. Barely more than a year ago, Halperin was peddling The Way to Win, a book he co-wrote with John Harris about, basically, what it takes to win the presidency in the age of the "Freak Show" -- the authors' label for the kind of nonsense that dominates modern campaign reporting and, thus, modern campaigns. At the time, Halperin and Harris blamed Republican-leaning cybergossip Matt Drudge for the sorry state of affairs, confessing that "Matt Drudge rules our world."
(If a progressive politician blamed staff for mistakes this often, how would Halperin and other political pundits and journalists react? They would eviscerate the politician for passing the buck. They would, no doubt, conclude that the politician's failure to take responsibility for his or her own actions reveals a deep character flaw.)
Halperin and Harris made clear that they weren't invoking Drudge as a symbol of "new media" or of anything else: "[W]hen we speak of Drudge, we are not referring to him as a symbol. ... We do not invoke him as a universal metaphor. ... [W]e are talking about Drudge specifically -- a clever and erratic man who made his fortune working from apartments in Los Angeles and Miami."
But it isn't Matt Drudge's fault that Mark Halperin and his peers would rather talk about haircuts than health care -- not any more than it is Richard Ben Cramer's fault.
Though Halperin and Harris acknowledge that much of Drudge's material is inaccurate, that his "standards for sourcing and checking are dangerously low," that "Matt Drudge is salacious, reckless, superficial and unfair," and that he "leans right" politically, what is most striking about their chapter about Drudge is that at no point do they write that responsible journalists shouldn't take their cues from the frequently-wrong right-wing cybergossip.
No, Matt Drudge isn't to blame. Not when journalists like Halperin and Harris can't even bring themselves to include in a chapter about Drudge a simple statement that news organizations shouldn't follow his lead. If Matt Drudge rules their world, he does so as an elected representative, not a cruel dictator.
But, like Richard Ben Cramer, Matt Drudge is only one in a long line of scapegoats. Long before Drudge first typed the words "EXCLUSIVE! MUST CREDIT DRUDGE," media observers could see that something was wrong with their profession.
In a November 1992 Washington Monthly article, Katherine Boo declared that Maureen Dowd, then a Washington correspondent for The New York Times, was "changing the standards of mainstream political journalism, for better and worse." Boo explained:
She's funny frequently, sneering when necessary, earnest almost never -- a combination that makes Dowd, according to Washingtonian magazine, "the most feared" Washington reporter. She's also, hands down, the most imitated. Today's campaign planes and buses are freighted with Dowd disciples: hyperliterate capital-W Writers with an eye for detail and an ear for the shuffling going on behind the curtain.
So why is the Creeping Dowdism in political reporting starting to irritate me? [...] [W]hat's unsettling is the dark vision of the pointlessness of politics that Dowd and her followers deliver, a vision that an onslaught of bright images can't obscure. Preoccupied with the feints and counterfeints, the preposterous and the poseurs, they seem to believe, and then to promulgate, Dowd's own metaphor. The democratic process is reduced to Pirandello, to theater of the absurd. Trouble is, this audience can't get up and leave.
Yet among Dowd and disciples, the characterpainting continually shoulders out meaningful questions about what the pretenders to the Oval Office have in mind. Once Dowd allows us to know that [Bob] Kerrey has "large blue eyes and a light-bulb shaped head that give him the look of a bemused extraterrestrial," can we really take seriously the mechanics of his health-care proposal? Of course, in her preprimary profile of Kerrey, the health-care issue -- his campaign centerpiece -- never comes up. And why would it? In Dowd's character-centered conception, issues don't merit too much concern. They're largely props in "meticulous Kabuki dramas in which the candidates enact the themes they want to sell to voters in November."
To these bored and overexposed insiders, everybody eventually begins to seem absurd, predictable, incapable of sincerity, inspiration, or meaning -- undeserving of being "taken seriously."A game it is, then. Whoever pens the most metaphors wins.
In the midst of a generally excellent piece, Boo seemed to blame Dowd for the acts of others who should know better than to follow Dowd's lead and offered up the typical explanation for the supposed value in the Dowdian approach -- that the candidates' character and personality matter:
While it's perennially popular to diminish the importance of character in politics -- syndicated columns mocking voters for exaggerating its relevance were a staple of the primary season -- history suggests that personality matters a lot, whether it's Nixon's paranoia (hence dirty tricks in a campaign he had a lock on) or Jimmy Carter's distaste for confrontation (hence his occasionally poor decisionmaking) or Reagan's sunny detachment (hence today's economic miasma).
Of course character is important in choosing a president; of course personality will always play a role. The problem isn't that journalists think character and personality matter, it is that they are spectacularly bad at assessing these traits, and even worse at predicting how the candidates will govern as a result.
Remember: During the 2000 campaign, the journalists and pundits told us that George W. Bush was the honest one. The straight-talking Texan. They told us this over and over and over again, until many Americans believed it. They told us that George W. Bush could unite the country, unlike the divisive Al Gore. Heck of a job, Dowd.
The argument that journalists should focus on things like facts and policy isn't based on the premise that character and personality don't matter. It's based on the simple fact that the American people are far better at assessing character and personality than Chris Matthews and Maureen Dowd and Matt Drudge and Mark Halperin. And it's based on the fact that NBC and The New York Times have the time and resources to determine if the candidates' statements are true and consistent and logical -- but voters don't.
That's where we need journalists: to help us sort out what the candidates have done, what they say they'll do, how likely it is to work, and who will benefit. We don't need them to speculate about why they chose to wear brown shoes or three-button suits or what the music on their iPods says about their character. We can figure that out on our own. And we don't need them to tell us who is likely to win; we need them to tell us information that will help us decide who should win.
Mark Halperin knows that -- he must. Why else would he devote so much energy -- a book here, a New York Times column there -- to finding a scapegoat to blame for his own failures? It's simple, really: If Halperin thinks he and his colleagues have focused too much on personality and the horse race, he should just stop doing it. And urge his colleagues to stop doing it as well.
Halperin's New York Times op-ed ran on November 25. The very next day, Halperin posted 15 entries on his Time.com web site. Fourteen of the 15 dealt with the horse race and campaign tactics; the only exception was an entry about Vice President Cheney's irregular heartbeat.
Drudge isn't Halperin's leader. Drudge is his mascot.