True Confessions from Trackside

“Campaign coverage this year has looked more like reporting for a sports event than for an election to decide the fate of the free world,” writes Village Voice reporter Ta-Nehisi Coates this week. “Every morning the papers lead with polls, while the networks parrot each candidate’s latest bulletin-board fodder (Mary Cheney, flip-flopping, ‘bring it on,’ etc.). We can all thank God and power at the plate that the Astros are out of it. But in this election season, the frenetic sports cliches are still in.”

Slate chief political correspondent William Saletan offered Coates some unvarnished explanations for this tired genre. “The horse race is more entertaining for us,” he says. “We’re sports-minded political reporters. It’s not more entertaining for people who don’t care about the contest and care about the issue. But we all want to feel like we’re a part of some event. It’s more exciting that way.”

Furthermore, says Saletan, a political reporter is a special animal almost pre-selected to guess whether Kerry will win as opposed to what a Kerry presidency might actually mean. “The people who cover campaigns are not normal. It’s not normal to be more interested in politicians than people’s daily lives,” he says. “These are people who like competition. They like to see who’s up or who’s down. The flu vaccine doesn’t show up, and a normal person is thinking about what if their family gets sick. … A political reporter is thinking about what this does for Kerry in Iowa.”

As for delving into topics of concern to voters? Forget it. “Reporters act like they’re appalled by the mere thought of covering issues,” says Sean Aday, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “If a candidate goes to Florida and talks about Social Security, the coverage isn’t going to be about Social Security. It’s going to be about whether the candidate can draw the senior-citizen vote.”

Sounding eerily like Campaign Desk, Aday disputes the oft-repeated excuse by reporters that issue stories don’t sell, but that horse race stories do. “They’ll say it’s more interesting and the writing is more interesting, but that’s a cop-out. Cliches — sports metaphors, war metaphors — are the hallmarks of bad writing. Policy stories don’t have to be uninteresting. If you learn how to write better, they won’t be.”

Is there any hope for improvement among the campaign corps? Saletan doesn’t think so: “We’re really, really lazy. First of all, we’re cowards because we are afraid of being not objective. We’re also just lazy. There may be two reporters in the country who understand tax policy. The rest of us are talking to our friends and reading each other in the paper.”

Maybe it’s a good thing we’ve rounded the last turn and are staggering into the stretch.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.