More substantively, a campaign like Cain’s, even if not a real threat to win, can provide a window to important issues. Horowitz is appropriately skeptical of Cain’s presidential prospects, but, he writes, his campaign raises some serious questions:

Who’s calling the shots in the Republican Party—the elite establishment or the grass-roots activists? What does the popularity of a black tea party hero say about the movement’s relationship with race? Is the goal of the upstarts in the Republican field the presidency or a cushy Fox news gig? And in the tea party era, do quixotic candidates tilt at windmills or reap electoral windfalls?

And while Horowitz’s profile offers scant discussion of policy, there’s room for the press to do more there, too. Cain has come under scrutiny for his amateurish understanding of foreign policy, but probably more consequential is that he is attracting non-trivial support while, as Horowitz writes, adopting far-right economic policy positions that include speaking “with reverence of the gold standard.” That means there is an opportunity for reporters to explain—rather than assuming readers know—what the gold standard is and why it was abandoned, to fit Cain’s surge into the general rightward drift of economic conversation, and to explore what impact his candidacy may have on other, more viable, candidates.

Doing that sort of reporting now will prepare both journalists and readers to more intelligently scrutinize the candidates who come to the fore as this campaign grinds on—and that’s something we can all agree is important.

Ends today: If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of
10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

Greg Marx is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.