Why is ‘issue coverage’ so boring—and often wrong?

Slavish fidelity to campaign position papers and official statements short-changes voters

As we sipped red wine in Washington last week, Republican pollster David Winston suddenly asked me, “Why doesn’t the media write more about issues that are of central concern to the voters? Why don’t they write more about candidate differences and the implications for the country? Instead we get a litany of process pieces with issues as a sideshow.”

When pollsters—yes, pollsters—start sounding like high-minded press critics, it’s a sign that horse-race hysteria has grown to absurd levels. With the election still four months away, we are hooked up to ephemeral data bursts with a shelf life of four hours. As Winston, who has no connection to the Mitt Romney campaign, went on to say, “This coverage makes it difficult for voters to decide whom they want to give the responsibility of governing to.”

But, as I struggled to explain to Winston, writing about issues in a presidential race is far more complex than merely listing Romney’s and Barack Obama’s policy proposals side-by-side, while projecting their costs based on green-eyeshade forecasts from a non-partisan think tanks. Covering issues in this formulaic fashion is not only yawn-inducing; all too often it is completely wrong.

The next day, John Roberts saved Obama’s healthcare plan in stunning fashion, underscoring yet again the journalistic folly of spending more time trying to forecast the future than to understand the present. Once the Supreme Court ruled, press coverage of the healthcare issue buttressed Winston’s complaint that the media cares about everything except what matters to the voters.

Every angle of the story was over-covered, except what President Romney would do about health care in the event that he and a Republican-led Congress rescind Obamacare. Romney’s affirmative policy proposals, such as they are, became almost completely lost in the shuffle. Typical was an Associated Press story by Kasie Hunt and Steve Peoples that began with the intriguing lede: “So much for Mitt Romney escaping health care.” But the AP dispatch almost exclusively dealt with Romney’s latest efforts to explain away his support for a healthcare mandate in Massachusetts. This, admittedly, is a valid topic, but probably less critical to swing voters than what, if anything, Romney would do to address the concerns of Americans without health insurance.

A rare exception was a New York Times article by Trip Gabriel and Robert Pear that parsed Romney’s proposals for healthcare tax deductions and transforming Medicaid into a block grant to the states. But for all its serious intent, the Times story quickly became mired in he-said-and-she-responded journalism. Without exception, every person quoted by Gabriel and Pear was either a Democratic or a Republican partisan. Ezra Klein, writing in his Washington Post blog before the decision in mid-June, did a far better job pointing up the lack of specificity in many of Romney’s health-care statements.

Healthcare campaign coverage represents merely one symptom of a chronic journalistic malady—passivity when it comes to framing stories about issues. A prime example: Neither Obama nor Romney is talking forthrightly about what has become known as Taxmageddon, or the “fiscal cliff.” Unknown to most voters, at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve all the Bush tax cuts will expire and draconian deficit-reducing budget cuts will kick in. In short, if Congress does nothing (dynamic inaction plays to the unique talents of legislators), the fiscal landscape on Inauguration Day 2013 will have changed beyond recognition.

But you’d hardly know it from the campaign beat.

As far as presidential issues go, the most potentially important story in the last few days came from Capitol Hill rather than from campaign reporters. A Reuters report by Kim Dixon and Richard Cowan detailed growing bipartisan sentiment on Capitol Hill to delay any lasting fiscal decision until after the new Congress and president are sworn in. Under this scenario, whoever is residing in the Oval Office on January 20 will be at the center of the biggest revision of the tax code since the mid-1980s.

The implications of this coming tax fight will dwarf any domestic issue in Campaign 2012—with the possible exception of the future of health-care reform. But little of this has been reflected in the campaign coverage. Instead, what we get are boilerplate paragraphs about how Romney wants to extend all the Bush tax cuts while Obama wants to roll them back for the affluent. Missing from all of this is a discussion of how Obama or Romney could use the expiration of the Bush tax cuts as a lever to enact far-reaching tax reform rather than just re-jiggering rates.

What I find exasperating is the obtuse literalness of most campaign issue coverage. If a candidate or a designated spokesman doesn’t talk about it, then it doesn’t exist for much of the press. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the lingering constraints of objective journalism discourage speculation when it comes to issues and 2013 policymaking in the White House. Reporters, of course, can go crazy with hypotheticals when it comes to horse-race coverage, but issues somehow require a return to Dragnet-style “just the facts, ma’am” reporting.

But facts—as defined by candidate statements, campaign position papers or even Congressional Budget Office analysis—are different than truth.

Recent political history is riddled with examples of presidential candidates who reversed field once they were in the White House. George W. Bush rejected nation-building in his 2000 debate with Al Gore, and Obama ridiculed a healthcare mandate in his primary debates with Hillary Clinton. No one covering the 2008 campaign predicted (as far as I know) that President Obama would embrace drone attacks with a cold-eyed fervor worthy of Dick Cheney.

Coverage of campaign policy advisers presents its own challenges. After he won the GOP nomination in 2000, Bush used every communications technique, with the possible exception of skywriting, to signal that Colin Powell would be his secretary of State. Nothing, of course, prepared voters for the reality that in a War Cabinet dominated by Cheney, Powell would play the feckless moderate.

During the 2008 campaign, I recall attending a series of Obama foreign-policy briefings featuring former Clinton national security adviser Tony Lake, former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig, and Washington lawyer Greg Craig, who served in the Clinton State Department. Neither Lake nor Danzig went into the Obama administration, while Craig had a short and unhappy tenure as White House counsel. But so much of the early press coverage of Obama foreign policy revolved around these three men, who ended up playing no lasting roles on the president’s national security team.

Please understand: I have not brandished these examples as an argument for abandoning campaign issues coverage. My point, instead, is that the old ways haven’t worked, with their emphasis on campaign position papers, policy speeches, and the candidate’s official team of blue-ribbon advisers.

What we need in covering the policy components of a presidential campaign is a burst of creativity—a way of creating plausible scenarios about a would-be president that go beyond analyzing campaign handouts and searching for independent economic projections.

More than anything, this is what journalists should strive to offer voters in a presidential election year, rather than the towel-snapping locker-room controversies that dominate political coverage. We needs ways to vividly picture President Romney, and to depict a reelected President Obama surrounded by a largely new policy team. Yes, reporters will make mistakes in taking these bold leaps into the post-election future. But, remember, the traditional methods of covering campaign issues have brought voters neither intellectual nourishment nor truth.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.