Little has changed in the world of political reporting since Campaign Desk launched to cover the 2004 presidential election. From what we’ve seen so far this election cycle, too many reporters on the campaign trail—and their editors—continue to be unhealthily obsessed with the process of electoral politics rather than the actual substance of what the candidates are saying (and not saying).
Look no further than Jeff Zeleny’s Sunday New York Times piece on the structure of the Clinton campaign in Iowa for evidence of this. The piece is an example of campaign-reporting-as-inside-baseball, delivering readers a look into the inner workings of a particular campaign, but without illuminating any issue of any real interest to the voting public. Adam Nagourney’s process piece on the Giuliani campaign’s push in Iowa—a nice companion piece to the Clinton article—shares the same page with Zeleny. Substance? Don’t look for it here. Instead, we get war gaming and staffing issues. The Washington Post’s Anne E. Kornblut didn’t fare much better in Sunday’s paper, wasting valuable space on page eight telling us that Robert Novak had reported that, as Kornblut put it, “Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) accused Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) of spreading rumors that her campaign is in possession of potentially damaging information about her rival.” (In other news, Joe Biden thinks Dennis Kucinich is a total nerd.) In an article that reads like it was published by a completely different newspaper, the Post’s Perry Bacon Jr. delivers an excellent—if thumbnail—look at how candidates from both parties are dealing with the issue of health care. It was almost enough to wipe the stain of Kornblut’s gossip piece off your fingers. Almost.
The Los Angeles Times’ Janet Hook actually found a way to write a horse-race piece that simultaneously delivered a little substance. In a piece about how Barack Obama is polling among seniors, she managed to tell us something about his policies toward seniors and Social Security:
His economic plan, unveiled earlier that week, included the proposal to eliminate income taxes for seniors making less than $50,000 a year…His proposal is particularly appealing to retirees, because it would not cut their benefits; instead it would raise the tax burden on wealthier workers. That proposal — to raise the $95,700 cap on income that is subject to Social Security tax — drew enthusiastic support [at a meeting with seniors in Iowa].Neat trick. I hope some other reporters are taking notes.
Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.
The L.A. Times also featured an excellent article by Cathleen Decker about a global-warming forum in Los Angeles that featured Democrats Dennis Kucinich, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards. You’re only going to get so much substance out of a politicians’ canned remarks, but Decker ignored the atmospherics and concentrated on substance. On a similar note, The New York Times’ Christine Hauser also did a good job with the event, managing to sneak some substance into a Sunday paper that was almost completely devoid of issues-based political coverage (even as Public Editor Clark Hoyt offered a mild defense of the Times’s political coverage against the very criticism I am leveling here). There was another bright spot in Michael Luo’s smart Week in Review piece on the politics of illegal immigration in this year’s presidential race, raising the Times’ average to .500 in Sunday political stories: two straight horse-race pieces, and two pieces that actually deliver useful information. Not bad.