Why Campaign Coverage Doesn’t Suck

Political Media Horse Race 2008 Election Coverage Focuses on Horse Race Study Finds Democratic Candidates Given More Favorable Attention Than Republicans Jay Rosen explains “Why campaign coverage sucks” for Salon. It’s an excellent exposition on the damage that the media’s pack mindset and obsession with the political horse race does to the contest. He notes, quite correctly, that bloggers aren’t much better.

The critique, though, is too one sided.

The current generation of political reporters has based its bid for election-year authority on its horse race and handicapping skills. But reporters actually have no such skills. Think: what does a Howard Fineman (Newsweek, MSNBC) know about politics in America? I mean, what would you logically turn to him for? It’s got to be: Who’s ahead, what’s the strategy, and how are the insiders sizing up the contest? That’s supposedly his expertise, if he has any expertise; and if he doesn’t have any expertise, then what is he doing on my television screen, night after night, talking about politics?

Even if Fineman and company had it, the ability to handicap the race is a pretty bogus skill set. Who cares if you are good at anticipating events that will unroll in clear fashion without you? Why do we need people who know how this is going to play out in South Carolina when we can just wait for the voters to play it out themselves?

Compared to the average viewer, Fineman has quite a bit of expertise in these things. And, while the endless speculation on the process almost certainly biases the process itself, I’d argue that it’s nonetheless valuable.

Granting that I’ve now got a stake in this game, having joined the ranks of pundits via my sojourn into the blogosphere, I was a political junkie long before I was a blogger. There’s a genuine thirst for information about the campaign, which moves at glacial speed for those following it intently.

Political journalism has much the same style and scope as sports journalism. In the next two weeks, we’ll get endless columns speculating about whether the Patriots can hold off the surging Giants to win the Super Bowl and complete a perfect 19-0 season. Why not just wait until the game gets played to see? Because it’s fun to talk about it ahead of time and play the guessing game. Indeed, it’s often more fun than the game itself. Ditto the long offseason, when the fans are eagerly awaiting any half-baked speculation whatsoever on free agency, the draft, coaching changes, and the like.

It’s more than that, though. Prospective voters are trying to figure out whether their candidate has a chance. Or why in the heck their candidate is losing. Or why Rudy Giuliani is skipping those early primary states. Or why Bill Clinton won’t just shut up. The Howard Finemans of the world help provide answers.

It’s not as if “the issues” are going without comment. White papers and policy comparison charts and so forth are widely available. But most people want a story. Returning to the sports journalism, we don’t just want the box scores.

Look at today’s stories at Memeorandum, which is tracking the various stories bloggers are writing about. You’ll see discussions of:

These are recurring stories, for the most part, and perhaps reflect a pack mindset. But they’re the narrative of this campaign. These stories and discussion help an electorate only half paying attention (they’ve got jobs and real life problems to deal with, after all) to better understand what’s going on. They also help frame the debate itself, encouraging the asking of important questions.

Via Joshua Levy.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Because the campaigns suck? Is this a trick question?

  2. laura says:

    I disagree. I think thses stories are examples of why the coverage does suck.

    These are substance-free horse race stories. There is little there that explains what each candidate believes or intends, little to help the voter decide who to vote for.