Attention, Class: You All Get an F!

So why has the media been so off the mark this election season? Howard Kurtz thinks he’s got the answer. Writing in today’s Washington Post, Kurtz says political reporters are focused on the wrong things.

He notes, as have we, ad nauseum, that the urge to construct an ongoing campaign narrative or to frame issues simplistically, just sets the press up for a fall. And usually the fall comes when the voters speak.

So why do they keep doing it? Kurtz thinks he knows. The four “bedrock pillars” of political prognosticating that the press has always relied upon — money, organization, polls and endorsements — are no longer reliable, he says.

Certainly, nobody can rise to the defense of polls (except those who make their living from them). And, what did Al Gore’s endorsement do for Howard Dean? As for organization, a case can be made that it still matters, but that the press is lousy at detecting whose organization is effective (Kerry) and whose is, well, an exercise in disorganzation (Dean).

But as for money being an “unreliable pillar” of campaign reporting, we take exception. If it were taken more seriously, and tracked assiduously, it could be the whole basement. Trouble is, almost everybody fails to treat it that way.

Focusing on who raises the most money from the most sources the earliest in the campaign cycle isn’t going to give you a winner; it’s going to give you, yes, Howard Dean again. Unfortunately, that’s how most money stories usually are written.

But fund-raising coverage done properly — with some honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting — will tell us a lot about the candidates. Based on what we know so far, all sorts of “special interests,” from trial lawyers to pharmaceutical companies to mammoth telecommunications megaliths, are funneling more money than ever to political parties, candidates and support organizations, to ensure that whoever is elected remembers who got him there.

We have yet to meet a reporter who went astray by sticking to the time-honored maxim, “Follow the money.” And we tend to think the nation’s media could run a money story every day until November 2 and still not scratch the surface.

Susan Q. Stranahan

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.