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The existential crises of the modern political reporter


 

Ezra Klein considers truth in the American presidential campaign.

Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation. Even if you bend over backward to be generous to them — as the Tax Policy Center did when they granted the Romney campaign a slew of essentially impossible premises in order to evaluate their tax plan — you often find yourself forced into the same conclusion: This doesn’t add up, this doesn’t have enough details to be evaluated, or this isn’t true. I don’t like that conclusion. It doesn’t look “fair” when you say that. We’ve been conditioned to want to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame, and the fact of the matter is, I would like to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame. I’d personally feel better if our coverage didn’t look so lopsided. But first the campaigns have to be relatively equal. So far in this campaign, you can look fair, or you can be fair, but you can’t be both.

Mark Leibovich goes looking for joy.

But what’s been completely missing this year has been, for lack of a better word, joy. Yes, it’s always kind of fun to follow Joe Biden around and wait to hear what will come out of his mouth next, and who knows what Paul Ryan has hidden under his oversize jacket. But the principals don’t seem to be experiencing much joy as they go through their market-tested paces. A kind of faux-ness permeates everything this year in a way that it hasn’t been quite so consuming in the past. The effect has been anesthetizing and made it difficult to take any of the day’s supposed gaffes, game-changers and false umbrages seriously. The campaigns appeared locked in a paradigm of terrified superpowers’ spending blindly on redundant warfare. How many times do they have to blow up Vladivostok? Where were the surprises, the pleasures of discovery and the true emotion of the newly vitalized? The volunteers who decided to get involved because so-and-so inspired them, not because the other guy (the socialist or the plutocrat) scared them? They seemed in such short supply. This might or might not be the most important election of our lifetime — as we are told it is every four years — but it really did feel like the most joyless.

Sasha Issenberg says campaign reporters can’t see the campaign.

Over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on. Campaign professionals have developed a new conceptual framework for understanding what moves votes. It’s as if restaurant critics remained oblivious to a generation’s worth of new chefs’ tools and techniques and persisted in describing every dish that came out of the kitchen as either “grilled” or “broiled.” “When I went to work for my first campaign, in 1994, I was actually surprised at how journalists tended to think one step ahead where campaigns are four steps ahead,” says Joel Benenson, a former newspaper reporter who now serves as President Obama’s chief pollster. “Think of it as a level-five player in chess and a level-eight player in chess. You had people covering campaigns who are at the mercy of the grandmasters of politics.”


 

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