Griping about the press is one of America’s oldest political traditions, a rite of passage for presidential candidates. This time around, however, journalists have matched candidates in their complaints about media coverage. In early 2012 the Atlantic’s Patrick Hruby criticized “the SportsCenter-ization of political journalism.” He argued today’s media cover politics like ESPN covers sports, leaving the electorate without “the foggiest idea how to solve our most pressing national problems, thrilled and diverted nonetheless.” In the flap over Hilary Rosen’s working-mother comments, Chuck Todd of NBC went after the press rather than politicians. “Welcome to the world of the shiny metal object,” he announced. Todd concluded that once again, an easily-distracted press had fallen for a “manufactured controversy” and failed in its central duty.
But what exactly is that duty? How should journalists cover a campaign? Don’t ask them. Arthur Brisbane, the public editor of the New York Times, offloaded the question to readers: Should the Times be a “truth vigilante,” questioning the claims candidates put forward? Readers, unsurprisingly, answered yes, and seemed alarmed that the paper didn’t already consider this its responsibility.
These criticisms suggest there is something unsettled – and unsettling – about the media’s approach to campaigns. The stakes here are high: Failures of political journalism can quickly become failures of governance, thanks to the influence over elections the press has historically wielded.
Before the 20th century, the press was the presidential campaign. In an era that considered it unseemly for candidates to stump for themselves, newspapers did the job for them. These papers were explicitly partisan. In fact, editors seemed bewildered at the notion they should be anything else. “A despicable impartiality I disclaim,” wrote a Connecticut editor in 1800, explaining: “I have a heart, and a country.”
This state of affairs receded in the late 19th century with the rise of objectivity. A replacement for partisan papers and sensational tabloids, the objective press was supposed to usher in a golden age of journalistic enlightenment. Starting with Adolph Ochs’s purchase of the Times in 1896, political endorsements were shunted to the newly-formed opinion pages. The rest of the paper was reserved for “just-the-facts” reporting meant to influence elections by fostering a properly-informed electorate.
Journalists often fell well short of objectivity’s lofty aims. The press rather enjoyed its more direct influence as kingmaker and proved loath to give it up. In 1940 Henry Luce, who owned Time, Life, and Fortune, single-handedly engineered Wendell Wilkie’s nomination. Not only did his magazines popularize the little-known candidate, Luce ensured the coverage was uniformly positive – to the dismay of journalists working for him. “Take me off this train,” begged one Time reporter covering Wilkie. “All I can do is sit at my typewriter and write, ‘Wendell Wilkie is a wonderful man. Wendell Wilkie is a wonderful man.’”
Journalists unmade candidates, too. Take Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign. Asked about coverage of his candidacy, Goldwater fumed, “I’ve never seen or heard in my life such vitriolic unbased attacks on one man as has been directed to me.” He had grounds for grousing. Mid-century objectivity reflected a commitment to the “vital center,” which Goldwater – a devoted conservative – adamantly rejected. The press in turn treated him as a danger to be exposed rather than a legitimate candidate to be covered.
The hostility Goldwater encountered became de rigueur in the years that followed. Government deception about Vietnam and Watergate poisoned the relationship between politicians and the press, turning campaign coverage hostile. Journalists once hid candidates’ frailties from the public – Franklin Roosevelt’s paralysis, John Kennedy’s affairs – influencing elections through concealment. Now they strove to expose the story behind the story, presuming every politician lies. Every unverified statement, every flaw, every gaffe came to matter more than issues and policies: Gary Hart’s affair, George H.W. Bush’s bemusement over supermarket scanners, Bill Clinton’s insistence that he didn’t inhale. Character came to matter more than policies, controversies more than issues. So big elections become about small things.
Political journalism has become adversarial, but it has also become unmoored. Objectivity provided clear divisions: opinions here, facts there. In its absence, the press has split two ways. By the mid-1980s the partisan press – particularly on the right – was enjoying a resurgence. Conservative media in particular exercises outsized influence on campaigns. Rush Limbaugh’s radio program went national in 1988; six years later Republicans credited him for their historic midterm victories. In 2004 right-wing publishing firm Regnery torpedoed the Kerry campaign with the book Unfit for Command. And as the 2012 primary got underway, Dick Morris highlighted conservative media’s centrality to the 2012 Republican primary. “This is a phenomenon of this year’s election. You don’t win Iowa in Iowa,” he explained. “You win it on Fox News.”
While outlets like Fox News and MSNBC embrace ideology as their central value, other political journalists choose balance. On its face, balance resembles objectivity: both are committed on some level to fairness. But while objectivity concerns itself with facts, balance centers on even-handedness. Facts – or ‘facts,’ as the public editor of the Times rendered them – don’t quite fit in with the new on-the-one-hand-on-the-other approach. That deeper search for accuracy has increasingly been handed off to internet fact-checking sites.
Which leaves political journalism in an odd place. If judgments are for the opinion pages and facts for specialized sites, what on earth fills the column inches and airwaves dedicated to the election? If journalists simply amplify campaign messages, they quickly become the pawns of savvy candidates. Then instead of policy debates and issue discussions, we find ourselves treated to wall-to-wall coverage of a lobbyist’s comments about a candidate’s wife, or detailed discussions of how Mitt Romney transported the family dog three decades ago.
Faced with a foundering economic and political system, voters should demand more of political journalism – and of themselves. After all, as Hruby noted in comparing the healthcare debate to SportsCenter: “By eschewing wonky policy details for death panels and angry protestors, the press was doing its job. Namely, giving us exactly what we want.”
Nicole Hemmer is a postdoctoral fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and former Miller Center National Fellow.