Tale of the tape … so far

Lessons for a year of scrutinizing campaign coverage

In two months, Americans will elect a president and determine who controls Congress. We’ve been tracking the coverage of these campaigns on CJR.org since late last fall through our Swing States Project, with a team of correspondents monitoring the work of political reporters in both the national press and electoral battlegrounds around the country. Given that many voters are only now starting to pay attention to the debate, here are some observations on what they’ve missed, and a modest wishlist for coverage down the home stretch.

What we’ve seen

  • The money gets followed .  .  . but only so far. No one can say the press has neglected the new prominence of billionaire donors, independent expenditure groups, and “dark money” in this campaign. But campaign-finance coverage, especially in congressional races, is too often a mile wide and an inch deep. For instance, a staple of local political coverage is the article, dutifully published after every filing deadline, that says which candidate leads in fundraising in each local district. Often missing from these articles: where that money is coming from, how it fits into larger networks, and how it is being spent.

  • The campaigns set the agenda. The debate over Mitt Romney’s departure from Bain Capital, and his responsibility for the firm’s role in offshoring jobs after he left, was telling. After an initial period of he said-she said reporting, many journalists did unearth new facts about Romney’s career and evaluate the campaigns’ competing claims. But as the debate got deeper, it also got narrower, with coverage confined to the tiny patch of land the campaigns were fighting over. Nearly absent from this debate was reporting that explored the actual (and relatively small) policy differences between Romney and President Obama on offshoring, or what effect the practice has on the US economy.

What we need

  • A better showing from local TV. CJR’s analysis of a hard-fought congressional primary near Scranton, PA, found that six local stations aired some 28 hours of political ads, and only a half-dozen news reports, over nearly eight weeks. Yes, this is a perennial problem, but some outlets have made better use of their resources. Jim Rogers’s Intermountain West stations in Nevada, for instance, offer hard-edged coverage of public affairs. With perhaps $1 billion in political ads raining down on the TV market this campaign cycle, nearly every swing-state station has the resources to do more.

  • Coverage that goes beyond the stump. Voters need coverage that broadens the debate beyond the ground staked out by the campaigns, and then tries to force the candidates to engage in that broader debate. For example: Both presidential candidates say this election is about the economy, and they’ve outlined sharply different visions on taxes, regulation, and the role of government. But neither could plausibly claim that his plan will get the economy back to full employment in time to help the millions of Americans whose career skills are deteriorating. The press should push for answers on what such a plan might look like.

  • Less dumbgeist. Mother Jones’s Adam Serwer coined the term “dumbgeist” to refer to manufactured controversies, substance-free media obsessions (“But can candidate X connect?”), and other shiny objects. Any storyline that dominates Twitter discussion among political journalists for 24 hours while never registering with 50 percent of voters probably qualifies, and this cycle has had more than its share: Etch-A-Sketch, WaWa, Hilary Rosen v. Ann Romney, etc.

The most charitable thing that can be said about dumbgeist is that it fills the newshole during the dog days of summer. But the conventions are here, the debates are coming, and congressional races are in full swing. There will be plenty of substance out there for the next two months. Let’s go cover it.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.