Bored Reporters, Boring Coverage

WaPo merely stood out from the crowd on Sunday

Another weekend, another round of political horse-race coverage. The Washington Post, for one, had quite a weekend when it came to giving us the inside dirt on everything but actual policy.

On Sunday, the Post’s Chris Cillizza and Shailagh Murray did their best impression of The Daily Show’s “Specularium” gag—where a roundtable of pundits speculates wildly about the upcoming week in politics—in offering a laundry list of what might happen in the race for the presidency if a series of unforeseen events occur. Now, if none of these predictions come to pass, (like John Kerry and Al Gore endorsing Barack Obama, or Fred Thompson pulling out of the race and joining the John McCain camp), no harm done, right? It’s only The Washington Post’s page two we’re talking about here.

Also on Sunday, in another effort to give us news we can’t use, it took two Post reporters just under a thousand words to break the developing story that presidential campaigns send out fundraising e-mails. And in other news, folks, campaigns also raise money by soliciting donations in ways other than e-mail. Wait! The Post had that breaking story locked down on its front page on Sunday, too.

It’s as though a virus of uselessness blew through the newsroom, because the Post also told us that Republican candidate Mike Huckabee “has received glowing reviews for his debate performances, showing off his folksy charm and playing to conservatives.” Now, these glowing reviews couldn’t have come from other reporters, could they, reinforcing our oft-stated contention that reporters out on the trail spend too much time covering the very narrative that they themselves create?

Down in the ninth paragraph the piece does get around to telling us about some non-reporters who are apparently rallying around Huckabee. Some evangelical Christians, according to the piece:

like Huckabee’s antiabortion, anti-same-sex marriage rhetoric, home-school activists who appreciate the work he did for their cause in Arkansas, gun-rights groups, and advocates of replacing the income tax with a national sales tax, an idea that Huckabee has championed.

That’s more like it. But even that bit of un-contextualized substance is quickly put in its place by un-contextualized attacks. The Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly is allowed to make the charge that Huckabee “destroyed the conservative movement in Arkansas” without any evidence to either support or refute the charge, while “a senior strategist for a rival campaign” gets some free ad time by accusing Huckabee of being “a fiscal liberal.” If that’s the Post’s idea of “balance,” I’d hate to be the victim of a hit piece.

Quite a day for the Post overall, but in our own attempt at balance, we should point out that this has been an absurdly long campaign, and there comes a point when writing another story about a candidate’s health-care plan is neither what the reporter wants to do, or the public necessarily wants to read. As Kevin Drum wrote over the weekend:

When you cover a candidate every day for months on end, listening to interchangeable stump speeches hundreds of times and being bustled around like cattle to anonymous coffee klatches and flesh pressing events 16 hours a day, you’re going to seize on almost anything to break the monotony…What’s more, the code of objectivity in American journalism actively prevents reporters from writing about whether the various nominees “have what it takes to fill the most difficult job in the world.” That would be too much like taking sides. Unless and until that changes, they’ll continue to relieve their boredom by writing about supposedly more neutral topics like polls, insider strategy, and what “many people” are saying.

Okay, but if covering the campaigns is so boring for reporters, imagine how boring it is to read the stories these bored reporters produce. The objectivity excuse is worn out, frankly, and if everyone thinks the process sucks, then maybe the reporters and their editors should try something new.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.