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.
That’s in part because the campaigns have caught up with, and in some ways, passed, the press. Sophisticated political operatives understand all too well the limitations that the conventions of modern-day “objectivity” impose on reporters. They know that, no matter how outlandish the charge, the press will cover it for the most part as a he-said/she-said. That means that for voters who don’t look closer — meaning most voters — the damage will be done. (If nothing else, the imperative to respond may keep the opposing candidate from talking about his preferred topic for the day.)
That’s why a press that went further could improve the level of political debate. Having the major papers provide a dedicated, experienced team of thorough but fast writers to sort through the campaigns’ competing claims and, when appropriate, offer judgment on them, would be a good start.