A Little Help From Their Friends

Campaign trail reporters should get help covering the financial crisis

As the candidates react to last weekend’s Wall Street meltdown, the political media, it seems, are struggling to pinpoint the appropriate nexus of economic and campaign coverage.

An article from today’s Washington Post takes aim at recent campaign antics: “That phase of the campaign may have ended.” It might have also mentioned that “that phase” of campaign coverage may have to take a break as well. The article, written by Dan Balz and Robert Barnes, broadly analyzes campaigns’ reactions to the financial crisis, with a nod to what voters may now expect to hear from both sides. Wedged into it is a simple and declarative statement: “…voters will be looking for more than accusations and boilerplate from the two nominees.”

Balz and Barnes indirectly suggest that coverage should seek to make more explicit (and historical) connections between Wall Street’s meltdown and campaign rhetoric, in particular when the candidates’ statements have tended towards crowd-pleasing denunciations of Washington or their opponents.

The significance of the idea almost gets lost in “Obama accused McCain” and “McCain’s campaign accused Obama” details, but the logical follow-up to it is that, sure, the candidates will no doubt stress—in greater depth—their economic positions and preparedness in the coming days. But even if they don’t go beyond accusations and boilerplate, political reporters, of course, should.

A few of today’s papers, unfortunately, showcased a fill-in-the-blank mentality in their coverage of the candidates’ remarks, devoting significant space to already-familiar quotes and predictions.

Boston Globe readers got a whiff of McCain’s approach: “The Arizona senator tried to walk a fine line, simultaneously launching a television ad saying “our economy is in crisis” while standing by his optimistic assessment about the health of the overall economy.” And following this was Obama’s tack: “McCain’s assertion provided an opening for Obama, who for weeks has criticized his rival for being ‘out of touch’ with struggling families and for being too close to President Bush.”

To his credit, Michael Kranish tries to mine the candidates’ past statements a bit later on—but the article is top-heavy with he said-he said reporting, and it largely keeps us at the boilerplate. The San Francisco Chronicle, for its part, faithfully detailed: 1) the campaigns’ responses to the financial situation, 2) the inter-campaign responses, and 3) the prediction that campaigns would focus on the economy in coming weeks. But readers (a.k.a. voters) deserve more than equal-opportunity transcripts when a complex topic of concrete importance to them comes up.

By eschewing the harder questions (how, specifically, do we connect the dots to the current administration’s culpability, for instance?), these articles relegate the responsibility of determining how exactly the Wall Street turmoil should inform campaign coverage to the realm of More Comprehensive Coverage To Come. This is insufficient.

Thankfully, a New York Times article written by Jackie Calmes does a solid job tackling these tough questions. The article cites McCain’s record high up in the article (“he said that the economy’s underlying fundamentals…were being threatened ‘because of the greed by some based in Wall Street and we have got to fix it’…but his record on the issue…suggest[s] that he has never departed in any major way from his party’s embrace of deregulation”) and presents the candidates’ previous remarks on the subject of federal regulation. It also lightly notes in conclusion that neither senator has served on the Senate Banking Committee (which has oversight of the industry and its regulators), reminding readers that the story of federal regulation is in fact larger than the back and forth of the campaign.

It may be too much to ask a campaign reporter to peer more deeply into the maw of our economic morass while he or she is out on the trail. But four other reporters contributed to that NYT article. As we have argued before, it makes sense for newspapers to consider forming ad hoc newsroom teams that could contextually augment a campaign trail reporter’s work. At the very least, though, political reporters writing about the current Wall Street crisis ought to be working in tandem with their business-page colleagues, rather than apart. This would, in likelihood, result in better reporting on the crisis-campaign-history nexus, and therefore in a more productive read for all concerned.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.