Better campaign coverage: More substance, less horse race — and holding Trump to account

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Nineteen days ago, the journalist and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll leveled a credible accusation of rape against President Trump. Carroll’s claim that Trump violently assaulted her during an encounter in the 1990s created a brief stir of outrage — then all but disappeared. Meanwhile, Trump’s lies and falsehoods mount, the abuse of children at the southern border continues, and his contempt for lawful subpoenas and even Supreme Court decisions grows. The press covers all of this, of course, but with an increasingly perfunctory, what-else-is-new tone of resignation.

Compare that with the second Democratic presidential debate, at which Sen. Kamala Harris reinvigorated her campaign by challenging former Vice President Joe Biden on race and by taking a stand in favor of Medicare for all. Here we are nearly two weeks later, and we’re still discussing whether Harris was being disingenuous given her own nuanced position on the use of busing to desegregate public schools and her shifting views on private insurance. Is Harris slippery? Is she electable? Was she too tough on poor old Joe? (And — gasp! — several of the candidates attempted a little Spanish, proving, of course, that they are hopeless panderers.)

Media coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign is shaping up to be the same depressing spectacle that it always is. With few exceptions, the press focuses on polls, fundraising, who’s up, who’s down, and who made a gaffe. Two and a half years after Hillary Clinton was denied the White House despite winning nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, there’s also a lot of dangerously silly talk about whether Americans are willing to elect a woman.

On Twitter, Washington Post political reporter Dave Weigel took a shot at acknowledging legitimate questions about Harris’ shifting views while placing them within a larger Trumpian context. “The question about Harris’s debate win is if she can shake off the problem that sapped her momentum before: Twisting into a pretzel when pressed on a policy question. So far…,” Weigel tweeted. “And yes, this is another area where Trump gets to play by different rules.”

The overarching problem is the same one that defined the 2016 campaign. As Weigel noted, the media hold Trump to a different standard than the Democratic candidates. The Democrats are treated as serious political players who should be held accountable for their policy positions and for what they say. Trump is presumed to be a lying imbecile, and is therefore not covered as though his words matter.

There was at least some justification for that in the last campaign, when media organizations assumed they could exploit the Trump phenomenon for ratings and profits, safe in the knowledge that, you know, he would not actually be elected. Now there are no excuses. But the press, like the rest of us, appears to be suffering from Trump fatigue, covering the president’s latest outbursts but then dropping them almost immediately in order to chase the next shiny object.

What would better coverage look like?

First, even though Trump will be all but uncontested for the Republican nomination (sorry, Bill Weld), reporters need to understand how crucial it is that he be held accountable in exactly the same way the Democratic candidates are. That seems unlikely to happen. But at a minimum we should avoid a repeat performance of 2016, when the media feasted on emails that had been stolen from the Clinton campaign, making themselves unwitting (and witting) accomplices of Russian efforts on Trump’s behalf.

Second, the media need to stop covering politics as a sporting event and focus on what really matters. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has emerged as a leading candidate on the strength of her in-depth policy proposals on issues such as income inequality, student debt relief, and health care. But a candidate’s background, experience, character, and leadership skills are at least as important as policy. Those tend to be the subject of lengthy chin-strokers early in the campaign, supplanted by the horse race once things heat up. It shouldn’t be that way — such stories are essential, and they should be at the center of any serious news organization’s coverage right up until Election Day. On a related note: Chuck Todd of NBC News should be banned from future debates for demanding one-word answers to complex, important questions.

Third, the press should stop trying to “define the narrative.” The narrative, such as it is, is what emerges, and shouldn’t be used as a mnemonic device to make it easier for journalists to do their jobs. Yes, there are serious questions about Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s temperament. But she had long been considered a real contender, and media overkill pretty much derailed her candidacy before it could begin. Warren was described as having missed her best chance by not challenging Clinton in 2016, but here she is. Harris opened strongly! stumbled! and now is back in it! These are normal ups and downs; the press errs by taking them too seriously.

There have been some positive signs. CNN’s one-hour town halls with the Democratic candidates have encouraged thoughtfulness and depth. Unfortunately, they demand too much from all but the most committed viewers. The 10-candidate “debates” on NBC were far too superficial. How about a series of 15-minute interviews, eight a night for three nights? That should be enough time to get into some substance.

As I wrap this up, Yahoo News is reporting that the Seth Rich conspiracy madness — the false tale that the Clintonistas ordered the 2016 murder of a young Democratic operative in order to cover up their own corrupt acts — originated with Russian intelligence. This bit of toxic fakery was not taken seriously by the mainstream media, but it was promoted by Sean Hannity on Fox News and, later, by the Trump White House itself. In other words, it got wide distribution and polluted our discourse even though actual news organizations handled it responsibly.

Which brings me to my final observation. Even if political reporters can improve on their efforts to hold Trump to account, to focus more on substance and less on the horse race, and to let the larger narrative emerge rather than trying to define it for us, there are few signs that they are prepared to deal with the new media world of foreign actors, Facebook fakery, and disinformation in which we are now immersed.

That world, as much as anything, got Trump elected in 2016. If the media aren’t prepared to identify and expose such efforts in 2020, it could happen again.

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Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are the class of the Democratic field

I’m in Toronto at a conference, so I missed the first hour of Wednesday’s debate and the first half-hour of Thursday’s. This is impressionistic, and what seems obvious this morning may look wrong in a day or two. But I thought Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren established themselves as the class of the Democratic field, while Joe Biden seriously wounded himself in his “states’ rights” exchange over desegregation with Harris.

I’ve thought for a while that a Harris-Warren or Warren-Harris ticket might be the Democrats’ best bet, but I’ve been frustrated with Harris’ fuzzy I’ll-have-to-look-into-that responses. On Thursday, she was prepared, offering compelling personal stories about herself and others in response to questions that could have prompted wonky responses.

As for the rest, Cory Booker and Julián Castro elevated their candidacies. Pete Buttigieg was poised and articulate, as he always is. And there at least a dozen candidates I hope we never see again.

The format, needless to say, was absurd. A series of much smaller debates, 20-minute one-on-ones — anything but two-hour shoutfests among 10 candidates with Chuck Todd constantly interrupting because they weren’t complying with his idiotic demands for one-word answers.

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