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.