Sorry, We’ve Gone to the Movies

Imagine, for a moment, a political press corps that approached and covered presidential campaigns like the high-budget Hollywood spectacles that they are. Reported on the expense and efficacy of the special effects. Regularly took readers behind the scenes. Reviewed the performances of the principals and the supporting cast, maybe even rated each actor — apples, thumbs or stars — at each event.

Today, National Journal’s William Powers makes a strong argument for exactly this sort of coverage. Given that “modern presidential campaigns are … elaborately staged big-budget productions,” Powers writes, why doesn’t the press report on them as such?

For a culture that is “extremely sophisticated about the way image and sound work together in the movies to make us think and feel a certain way,” Powers declares, “our political journalism feels like a remnant of the 1940s, with its creaky emphasis on electoral mechanics — the swing-state obsession — and earnest discussion of which Big Issue, the economy or the war, will matter most.”

It is “the election movie … the enormous, costly multimedia production we’ll all be watching every day for the next four months, that will really decide this campaign,” Powers argues. “And it deserves to be taken seriously and dissected on its own terms, the way we dissect Hollywood products.” This, he writes, involves more than reporters tossing around “catchphrases” like “sound bite” and “photo op”— they ought to tell readers how the photo op worked and whether or not it was successful. “We care enough to ask these questions about Hollywood productions,” Powers concludes. “Does presidential politics deserve anything less?”

Sure, there have been occasional stories in this vein. (Fittingly, the Los Angeles Times ran such a piece earlier this week, headlined “New Strides in Presidential Stagecraft.” And in May, Campaign Desk applauded Ann Gerhart’s effort in the Washington Post titled “Roadshow: The America-Can Tour Revs Up as Multitude and Platitude Noisily Collide.”) But not enough of them, to Powers’ mind. Entertainment reporting, he writes, “often feels a lot smarter than our old-fashioned, boys-on-the-bus political coverage.”

So we propose a swap or two. Put A.O. Scott on the campaign trail and dispatch Adam Nagourney to Entertainment Weekly. Throw Roger Ebert on a campaign plane and assign Dan Balz to Disney. Order Andrew Sarris to Ohio and send Campaign Desk to the movies.

We like this idea.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.