As Columbia Journalism Review has documented with depressing regularity for some years now, most newsroom managers are under relentless pressure from their corporate overseers to cut costs and “do more with less.” We’re well aware that even the biggest and the best aren’t immune from those demands, but unlike their smaller brethren, they already have the resources at hand to create the kind of daily journalism that we’re envisioning here. These papers could dramatically enhance their coverage by assigning a team of “analysts” to provide the quick but thorough background research that the daily reporters don’t have time or space to include in their pieces — and, most useful of all, to adjudicate between the campaigns’ various charges and counter-charges.
These analysts would be based in the newsroom rather than on the campaign trail, giving them the resources to conduct in-depth research. Being less dependent than everyday political reporters on the campaigns’ press operations for their information, they might be expected to be quicker at exposing the distortions and inaccuracies in campaign rhetoric, in effect creating a rounder, fuller news report that their newspapers now do.
It’s crucial that these elaborations be connected as closely as possible to the hard news stories to which they relate. That would mean running them within the relevant news stories when possible, or alongside them as sidebars. If that can’t be done, they might be written as next-day efforts to nail things down (with the “analysis” slug, if editors prefer). And sometimes that might just mean running in a more timely manner — and on the news pages — the kind of contributions like those that Kinsley and Frankel produced days after the fact for the Post.
These analysts wouldn’t need to address every campaign issue that arises. But there are plenty of instances where a more rigorous treatment — going far beyond the paragraph or two that a reporter can feasibly include in his initial news piece — is essential if readers are to learn anything truly worthwhile. (To address ongoing issues, analysts could even compose short pieces of boilerplate language that campaign reporters could drop into their accounts when appropriate.)
How would this work in practice?
In the case of the Bush campaign’s “350 times” charge, analysts might have looked in detail at the 350 Kerry votes that the Bush campaign cites on its Web site to support its claim, and in equal detail at Kerry’s response. This stuff is out there, and with Nexis, Google, and the rest of the Web, reporters have never had more — or more convenient — search tools. As for the “Herbert Hoover” charge, how hard is it to report and write a piece that asked reputable economists with a range of political views about just how much of the job loss of the last three plus years can fairly be blamed on the current administration? (If there’s no good answer to that question, that in itself would be illuminating.)
Both the Times and the Post, of course, already publish analysis pieces, designated as such, in their news sections. Often they’re written by the type of respected veteran journalists — Todd Purdum of the Times, David Broder of the Post — practiced at taking the long view. But these pieces generally focus on the political ramifications of news events, or on political history. Rarely do they overtly scrutinize the campaigns’ rhetoric, and pass judgment on its validity.
We have been pelted this campaign season with “news” — such as the questions raised concerning President Bush’s National Guard service, or the charges that John Kerry threw back his war medals — that exists only as accusations, manufactured into story lines by the campaigns or their surrogates, and willingly swallowed up and then regurgitated by a compliant press.