NEVADA—Dennis Myers, news editor of the weekly Reno News & Review, probably wouldn’t mind being called “old school.” A veteran of both broadcast and print journalism in the Silver State, Myers has written critically over the years of political reporting. In late March, he wrote an online column with the headline, “Political coverage that’s an inch deep,” declaring that we are in “an age of reporters who could be interchangeably assigned to People magazine or The Washington Post.”
In 2008, he pronounced: “This is the age of amateurish national political coverage.”
In hopes of peeling back the layers of Myers’s discontent, I gave him a call seeking elaboration. An edited transcript of our conversation appears here.
This isn’t the first time you’ve been critical of the coverage of politics. Can you identify a swing point in the pendulum?
No, I’ve seen it happening gradually over time. One thing that jumped out at me, a year or so before Ted Kennedy died, the Boston Globe published a biography of him written by its staff. A lot of the writers had entered journalism after Kennedy came on the scene and probably weren’t born until he was in the Senate, which is fine. But the book, to me, was very shallow. It sort of encapsulated what had happened to political journalism. I’ve been writing about some of the failings all along, but that really galvanized my feeling that we’re going down the wrong road.
Is that a result of age, the fact that such writers lack wisdom and experience in political coverage?
I don’t think it’s age particularly. I do think it tends to be the lack of experience. I wrote recently that they don’t cover enough sheriff’s races before they cover a presidential campaign. It takes time to develop political savvy.
Covering a local sheriff’s race can help you prepare for covering a presidential campaign?
I think it helps prepare you, [as does] covering legislative races and then the governor’s race and so on. Each stage, you learn a little more about the process and how politics works. I think there are too many people now who have not gone through that process and picked things up as they went.
What are the common shortcomings in the political coverage you see these days?
For one thing, [reporters] don’t let the data take them where it will. Here’s an example: How many stories have you seen saying that Barack Obama benefited from the birth control debate? After the dispute over contraception, most reporters looked at the next round of polls to see how Obama was doing with women. And they showed that he had a big lead with women. So they wrote stories that suggested cause and effect. What they did not do was look at earlier surveys to see if Obama’s new numbers represented a gain. In fact, the numbers changed not at all. Pew Research’s surveys, in fact, showed that Obama had lost a point among women. The only place I saw that reported that was Real Clear Politics. No one else that I saw let the data form the conclusion.
Is there a short circuit in many reporters’ thinking process, the process of asking the right questions and looking for the right information?
It’s not a good idea to let your assumptions leap ahead of you. Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post in 2010 did a story on the [Sharron] Angle-[Harry] Reid Senate race. I think he had a view of Nevada that he hadn’t really researched. He wrote, “ aside from Clark County (Las Vegas), the state is populated with conservative-minded voters who are more likely to disagree than agree with the direction that Obama (and Congressional Democrats) are taking the country.” It’s preposterous to write “aside from Clark County” in a story about a statewide race. Clark County is Nevada. In excess of 75 percent of the state lives there. And beyond that, he didn’t seem to understand the nuances of the areas outside Clark County, either. For example, that Clark County (Las Vegas) tends to elect conservative Democrats and that Washoe County (Reno) tends to elect moderate Republicans. Knowing the data and the voting patterns would have taken him to different findings.
How much of the problem is in the system—with the very short news cycle and instant posts on social media—instead of with the journalist him or herself?