Q&A: Dennis Myers, news editor of Reno News & Review

On “inch-deep” campaign coverage and “manufactured” candidates

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?

I absolutely think that has something to do with it. When I left television in 2002, we were having to do a story for four newscasts. And each time we would have to slice it thinner. You had to do four permutations of that story. And each time you rewrite it, you get a little farther away from what you started with. On top of that, because you’ve done so many versions, you don’t have the time to craft it carefully and write it well, with precision.

Is anybody doing anything well in this campaign cycle?

Yeah. What I see are good pieces that jump out at me more than writers who are consistently good. I’m not coming up with any reporters who can be relied on to consistently produce solid pieces. I still read Jules Witcover faithfully every week. I wish Ken Bode were still in journalism. You could take their stuff to the bank.

So you truly yearn for the likes of not only Jules Witcover, but also of the David Broders and Jack Germonds of past years?

A lot of them brought institutional memory of the process. That was certainly true of Broder. It was both one of his assets and his liabilities, because he tended to get dull. But issues and candidates don’t come out of nowhere. We ended up in Iraq as part of a long process and a lot of the reporters treat those decisions like a traffic accident, like they happened today. Their stories don’t lay any groundwork and don’t give the context. That context is absolutely essential and I think you get it better from reporters who know the history, rather than from those who know only what happened today.

What inspired you to write your column, “Political coverage that’s an inch deep?” Was it, as you cited, the overused cliché that Mitt Romney “hasn’t yet closed the deal?”

That one was really starting to irritate me. They started writing that Romney hasn’t “closed the deal yet” before the first primaries and caucuses. He was being held to a standard that I hadn’t seen before, of needing to win the heart of the party before any votes had even been cast. After about three months of that, it was making me crazy. Clichés serve their purposes; they sort of sum things up. But this one was being run into the ground.

In a recent column, you described Newt Gingrich as a “manufactured” candidate. Did anyone else pick up on that?

Newt Gingrich was sort of an artificial candidate. He didn’t really have the support of the party. He didn’t really have much of a campaign. What he had was money. He had one rich guy (Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson) who was propping up his campaign and keeping it going. That isn’t a real candidacy.

I don’t think journalism did a good job of communicating to voters that this candidacy would not have existed had it not been for the Adelsons. They told us about the money, but they didn’t tell us how fragile the campaign was otherwise. The only thing keeping it going was these transfusions of money. … If reporters get tired of covering the same things, they have another option, which is to cover policy and cover programs. About the only thing we heard about Mitt Romney during the early stages of this campaign was about his healthcare program in Massachusetts, and very little beyond that. Surely he has more of a public record than that. And I don’t know what it is. There has to be information there that would have been useful to primary voters.

Correction: Due to a transcription error, this piece originally referred to a biography written “a year or so after Ted Kennedy died.” This has now been corrected to “a year or so before Ted Kennedy died.” CJR regrets the error.

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

Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.