Washington Post public editor: The bright side of 2020? Less campaign froth

It is August of 2020, in an alternate and more predictable reality. We are closing in on the second full year of presidential campaign coverage. The headlines of the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, and any magazines that remain in business are dominated by horse race coverage of political pettiness. “Trump Names Eighth Campaign Manager.” “Biden Confuses Snickers Bar for Cell Phone.” Pundits briefly acknowledge the latest plan to imprison or humiliate refugees before droning on at excruciating length about upcoming debates and strategic vice presidential picks and conflicting polls. Sometimes regular people argue about these topics at bars, which are still a thing.

I call this “Regular World Alternate Reality,” and it is where the American news cycle would normally be now. Except for a once-in-a-century global pandemic followed by the biggest social uprising in generations. In our actual, existing reality, the campaign has been relegated to second- or third-tier status. The grandiose stratagems of Trump and Biden can no longer justify themselves as lead stories. Instead, we are bombarded by death, disease, and the dawning of a new Great Depression.

It’s an improvement. Not in terms of the human toll of our current crises, of course. But as a silver lining, we no longer have to suffer the bullshit of presidential campaign reporting. There is no variety of journalism more prone to excessive inflation of the importance of unimportant things than presidential campaign journalism—Beto O’Rourke leaping onto Iowa countertops, which candidate is the better father, and on and on, until at least January 2021.

No outlet is situated more precisely in the epicenter of election year saturation than the Washington Post, a paper that is required to own the politics beat as part of maintaining its own self-image. Reporters at the Post who would normally be prowling the back roads of the Midwest in desperate search of Real Undecided Voters are now (and I realize there is an element of “pathologically searching for the bright side” here) afforded the opportunity to take a broader view of what’s happening in the country.

“We’re probably all better off without the typical volume of election year stories from plains-states diners or coverage of campaign trail intrigue—especially when so many readers and viewers say they want more coverage of a candidate’s policies and platforms,” one Post reporter told me. “Have journalists, in a broad sense, really learned lessons from the 2016 coverage and improved? I don’t know. But campaign 2020 not being the all-encompassing story of the year has created space for stories like voter suppression, racial inequity in public health, and police violence to get sustained coverage—and that was long overdue.”

Another politics reporter at the paper mentioned the disconnect between the typical Post journalist’s current situation—stable employment, safe at home—and that of the millions of other Americans they are writing about. But a DC press corps ensconced in a cushy bubble of fellow nerds is the norm. The enormity of our ongoing catastrophe will at least align reporters’ lives a little bit more with the contours of real life.

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“Before I became a reporter, I was cantankerous, and thought that coverage of presidential elections could be pointlessly trivial. How much time did we spend in 2000 discussing Al Gore’s (accurate) comments about arpanet? Good lord, how much time did we spend in 2004 relitigating Vietnam?” said Dave Weigel, a national political correspondent for the Post.

“This year obviously doesn’t feel as trivial, mostly because of the constant mood of crisis, but I’d give us reporters some credit. Everything that’s lived on Twitter as a ‘Why isn’t the media covering this?’ story is known because, well, the media covered it. Issues like qualified immunity or intervention in Yemen get their moments, and structural crises like the possible suppression of mail voting are getting tons of ink.”

So as the world burns, look on the bright side. The confluence of a quasi-fascist leader, a terrifying global disease outbreak, and explosive uprisings across the country have done what many years of dour columns by fusty media critics could not: made election year news coverage somewhat less pointless.

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Hamilton Nolan is CJR's public editor for the Washington Post.