Covering the Fringe Candidates

How should the press decide which dissents to take seriously?

Jon Huntsman’s campaign for president doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so why does he retain his commanding lead in the magazine profile primary? At his Atlantic blog, Conor Friedersdorf has some sharp thoughts on the appeal of the erstwhile ambassador to China—and, in particular, why Huntsman fares so well with the media compared to the similarly doomed Ron Paul and Gary Johnson.

The press is not wrong to be drawn to Huntsman’s latest incarnation, in which he plays the role of bold truth-teller, affirming the existence of global warming and the need to raise the debt limit, Friedersdorf writes. But Huntsman is a very limited sort of protest candidate—the sort whose “critiques reinforce rather than undermine centrist-consensus positions”:

Huntsman is challenging orthodoxies of thought that afflict the GOP alone, and taking positions that reflect the conventional wisdom in the media: evolution is a fact, so is climate change, and the debt ceiling had to be raised. In contrast, Johnson and Paul are challenging orthodoxies of thought that are bi-partisan in nature and implicate much of the political and media establishment.

If journalists are going to cover losing campaigns because doing so offers an opportunity to expand the political conversation and scrutinize more competitive candidates—which is one of the arguments offered by Jacob Weisberg in Vogue for paying attention to Huntsman—then, Friedersdorf asks, why do reporters not shower attention on Paul’s critique of America’s interventionist foreign policy, or Johnson’s indictment of the War on Drugs? His answer:

In the twisted thought process of the political press, one’s party is always the point of reference, bucking it is the ultimate act of bravery, and the proper object of a “protest candidacy” is encouraging one’s party to embrace the bipartisan consensus of the moment.

This probably isn’t the complete explanation for the attention lavished on Huntsman’s campaign. It doesn’t hurt that Huntsman and his stunningly photogenic family look a lot better in photos by Annie Leibovitz than, say, Ron Paul would. As for the treatment in non-glossy media outlets, Huntsman still seems a plausible contender for the GOP nomination in a future cycle—something that may help explain press attention this year, and that can’t be said for Paul or Johnson.

Still, Friedersdorf makes an astute, and depressing, point about how the self-imposed rules under which the political press works conspire to exalt some issue positions and marginalize others.

In a roundabout way, though, his post also suggests one reason the press finds those rules useful—which is that, within traditional understandings of the journalist’s role, it’s not always clear how else to decide which “outside-the-mainstream” issues to take seriously, and which can be deservedly relegated to the fringe. Consider this passage:

But a protest candidate that challenges the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, the war on drugs, or civil liberties is ignored, no matter the substantive quality of their arguments on those issues. And if their fans complain, it is pointed out that they don’t have a chance of winning. The salutary effect that protest candidates can have on political discourse even if they don’t win is completely forgotten. (Occasionally, another dodge is used: that Ron Paul, for example, disqualifies himself from serious coverage due to fringe positions he takes on the Federal Reserve or the gold standard. Suffice it to say that all sorts of candidates are covered as serious contenders despite holding positions more lunatic, as Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain attest. Paul’s foreign policy critique is serious, coherent and mostly unanswered.)

This is persuasive if, like Friedersdorf, you see in Paul a messenger for important, neglected civil-liberties issues. If, on the other hand, you’re attracted to Paul because you really love the gold standard, Friedersdorf may look like just another one of those Beltway insiders determined to marginalize your issue. I happen to agree with Friedersdorf about the relative merits of Paul’s critiques. But while good journalism can sometimes show that an argument is shoddy or a claim is false, the “substantive quality” of a political argument is rarely the subject of universal agreement, because those arguments are rooted in values about which people disagree.

As a pundit and critic, Friedersdorf is free to ground his writing in his own political values, and he’s frustrated that other media professionals—many of whom, he says, are also sympathetic to the libertarian critique of the drug war and foreign policy—don’t give Johnson’s and Paul’s dissents a fair hearing. But mainstream political reporters, of course, are traditionally taught not to write through the prism of their own views, insofar as that’s possible. That leaves them needing some outside authority to validate a losing issue position as worthy of attention—and the “bipartisan consensus” is one such authority.

Friedersdorf is right about the problematic consequences of this system. And there’s a good case to be made that campaign reporting would be more interesting, more informative, and more useful if it were undertaken by reporters who hold a well-defined (and known-to-readers) set of political values—especially when those values are in tension with the bipartisan consensus. In fact, The Atlantic has been trying just this approach, to good effect, with Will Wilkinson’s dispatches from Iowa. I’d love to see Radley Balko do the same for Huffington Post.

But the traditional approach will probably be with us for a while. And as long as it does, there’s a puzzle for critics: Can you imagine a way for the press to identify the “right” dissents to pay attention to that doesn’t boil down to, “report from a perspective that privileges my personal political values”?

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: , , , ,