When Donald J. Trump arrived in the White House, he brought with him a gift for shorthand that he’d perfected over years spent in and out of the New York tabloids. Trump, like a headline writer for the New York Post, can be counted on for gimmicky, easy-to-digest parodies that reduce people to singular patches of their otherwise complex identities: Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Crying Chuck Schumer. The press, while not exactly copying Trump’s characterizations, has adopted the same tendency, especially when it comes to the growing Democratic candidate pool: Bernie Sanders is old, Amy Klobuchar is a bad boss, Beto—first name only—is a quirky punk rocker.
The press has long engaged in political sportscasting—including endless drivel on player potential in the hours before an election—but the coverage we see now has morphed into something beyond the identity politics of the 2016 cycle. When the press, like Trump, discusses candidates in a way that strips them from their larger personal and political contexts, we engage in the very bad habit we criticize Trump for indulging ruinously. And the candidates’ policy ideas end up playing a supporting role to the personas that the press creates.
Days before Amy Klobuchar, a senator from Minnesota, announced her run for president, HuffPost’s scoop about alleged mistreatment of her staff became the predominant narrative—and it continues to drive coverage of her. An opinion piece published on USA Today begins, “Sen. Amy Klobuchar sounds like a strange and unpleasant boss.” A headline from People magazine asks whether she is the “World’s Worst Boss or The Hard Worker America Needs.” The Washington Post poses the question, “Does It Matter if Amy Klobuchar is a Mean Boss?” How she treats her employees is, of course, relevant to her candidacy, but even the nuanced assessments of her leadership don’t show up in public recollection of Klobuchar.
The controversy surrounding Senator Elizabeth Warren’s attempts to leverage family rumors about Native ancestry as political clout—and her ill-advised use of DNA testing, a colonialist assessment that does not determine tribal membership—cannot be entirely blamed on the press. But journalists are guilty of printing Trump’s mocking use of what amounts to a racial slur in news coverage. Instead of reporting that more aggressively seeks to hold Trump and Warren accountable to Native people, we write stories that offer credence to the controversial discussion of Native ancestry and, by extension, citizenry, in blood quantum terms—against the advice of leaders from indigenous communities. In a story published by ABC News in October, for instance, word from the Bureau of Indian Affairs discouraging of the use of DNA testing to demonstrate Native ancestry appears at the bottom of the story—only after the piece gives a play-by-play of Trump-Warren bickering. The uncomfortable task for the press is extrapolating the slivers of truth in a sentiment that Trump has distorted and repackaged to score points with his base; Warren deserves scrutiny for foolishly courting association with a marginalized community to whom she has no meaningful claim.
A slew of stories that obsess over the age of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—and the subsequent pieces that declare them ageist or not—offer another easy example of how the press has borrowed a line from Trump. A Pacific Standard piece (the headline reads “Is Bernie Sanders too old to be president?”) that considers an age ceiling for presidential fitness, posits that Sanders “may appear as vibrant and energized as ever, but the office of the presidency isn’t always forgiving.” The piece makes passing mention of the age of Warren, who is 69, and Joe Biden, who is 76 (and has not yet declared his candidacy for president), but focuses on Sanders, 77. If elected, he’d be the oldest person ever to hold the office. But the press hasn’t raised the same concern about Nancy Pelosi, 79, or Mitch McConnell, 77—politicians who, it could be argued, have a more direct impact on the public. In Axios, the concern about age is translated into a dry regurgitation of numbers that teaches readers little of substance about the candidates. (The Sanders campaign, meanwhile, has aimed to recast him by reminding voters that he’s the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland; the press has started to pick this up, too.)
In coverage of Beto O’Rourke, we can see the consequences of campaign cartooning. In Vanity Fair’s cover story on him, Joe Hagan, the author, alley-oops a quote from O’Rourke in which he claims never to prepare his speeches when he describes his speaking engagements as “near-mystical.” Margaret Sullivan, in a recent column for The Washington Post, observes, “The perfectly timed cover treatment was the full monty: Rugged-glam photo by the legendary Annie Leibovitz, the former Texas congressman’s earnest Kennedy-esque gaze, and the ripe-for-parody headline including this immortal quote: “I’m just born to be in it.’” The press corps fell into line, spreading the image widely, especially on network news stations, she adds. Thus, O’Rourke becomes a sponge, ready to absorb whatever projection of him you fancy: a cool, Gen-X punk rocker dad, or a political heir, or the savior of the sensible left.
It’s not that nobody is writing about candidates’ policy positions, or when they waver on them. But crucial context is often buried too deep in a story, or left out altogether; eager for access, reporters can be inclined to become too friendly to campaign communications teams, at the expense of rigorous journalism. When our headlines and cable news shows fail to critically report on candidates as whole beings, reverting instead to easily digested parts, we fail the public.
We’re just under one year away from the Iowa caucus, when the first votes will be cast for the Democratic candidate who will challenge Trump for the White House. That voters and readers seek to understand political moments, candidates, and campaigns in narrative terms is not inherently troubling. But it’s simply too early for any one narrative to be settled. Consider what the average voter can recall when asked about the current, packed candidate pool. Pete Buttigieg? A gay mayor from Indiana. Cory Booker? Unmarried, and a friend to Silicon Valley. (Nevermind that his courting of Facebook in the name of school reform in Newark was, by many accounts, a flop.) Jay Inslee? John Hickenlooper? Tulsi Gabbard? Bueller? It’s too soon for our commitments to do better next time to evaporate. Next time is now.