The human consequences of the pandemic are grim, and the economic impacts even worse. At some point, however, we may see some benefits from the plague.
And one of them will be the impact on the presidential campaign. It’s already been interrupted, and it appears likely to be radically abbreviated – perhaps down to some 10 weeks, from August to November. As a nation, we may learn what every other democratic nation already knows – that short campaigns are better.
I learned this the hard way, because I am a recovering political reporter. For some 30 years, I worked for the Seattle Times, covering City Hall, the Legislature, Congress and every state and national election campaign from the 70s through the 90s.
Some of what I learned has changed profoundly due to political polarization, two impeachments, the recession and now a deadly pandemic. But there were three fundamental lessons that hold true.
The first lesson: Covering election campaigns is journalism’s most important job. Serious reporters understand that our highest calling is to provide citizens with the information they need to cast an intelligent vote.
The second lesson: We’re lousy at it. Journalists do a fine job of covering airplane crashes, sports and most recently epidemics. But, for all the effort we invest in campaign coverage, it’s one of the things we do worst.
The third lesson: American presidential campaigns aren’t just long, they’re perpetual, incessant. And that makes the media coverage excruciating.
Here’s the problem. By training and by practice, reporters are in the business of covering the news, telling readers (or viewers/listeners) what happened today or yesterday. That works well with football games or, yes, epidemics.
Political campaigns are an entirely different beast. Sure, it’s news when Donald Trump announces he’s running for President. And election day is a huge news story. We have no problem reporting who got elected and by how much.
Between those events, however, there is precious little legitimate news. Candidates are raising money, running ad campaigns, holding rallies or prepping for debates. Today’s campaign speech is the same as yesterday’s. Nothing new.
So political reporters are left to grope for anything that appears to be new. We report that the candidate is campaigning in the next city. We report the results of the latest opinion polls, who is raising and spending the most money, who hired or fired a campaign manager, who says something nasty about another candidate.
We try to cover campaigns as if they were sporting events, right down to the jargon. An election is a horse race, with frontrunners and underdogs. Candidates hit the ball out of the park, punt or throw in the towel.
Candidates and their handlers understand this, and endeavor to manufacture pseudo events that will become news stories. In my day, it was press conferences and photo opportunities. Today it’s tweets or Facebook postings. And some, like Donald Trump, are very good at this, so they draw the most attention.
The preeminence of online and cable news has made matters worse. The online economics favor news outlets that cater to partisan markets. Fox News and MSNBC make money by tailoring the news to their ideological audiences, while the mainstream press goes broke. In response, campaign reporting gets increasingly analytical and subjective. Who’s leading in the polls and why? Who won the last debate? As often as not, their analysis and projections prove to be dead wrong. And, even if they’re right, all that analysis is of little use to voters.
So it goes, day by day, week after week. Newspapers and online sites disgorge countless campaign stories aimed at voters, most of whom aren’t paying attention or, if they are, simply want information that might help them decide who to vote for.
What should journalists do about this predicament? Way back when at the Seattle Times, we decided to experiment with a new model. We would think of ourselves more in the business of corporate headhunting, hired by readers to seek out and provide information and insight on their candidates – leadership experience, personal skills, the ability to hire good staff and then use their advice wisely.
We stopped sponsoring horserace polls and turned instead to asking voters what issues mattered to them. We spent less time following candidates on the stump and tried instead to research and write in-depth political profiles that focused on the candidates track record and professional experience. What do former staff members and colleagues think about how this candidate makes decisions? Is the candidate heavily partisan, or has she shown herself willing to make independent decisions? Who has endorsed whom and why?
And we tried to deliver this information when voters needed it most – in the weeks before election day. We compiled and condensed much of that information into a separate voter guide that was folded into a Sunday paper about the time that voters were going to have to make their decisions.
Did it make a difference? There’s no way to measure it. But I recall going to my polling place and watching fellow voters arrive carrying their Times voter guide with names circled and annotated. It was worth the effort.
But those efforts were concentrated on the few weeks leading up to the election. What is a serious reporter supposed to do during those months as candidates traipse the political landscape, doing and saying nothing newsworthy?
I used to envy reporters in Canada or the UK, where election campaigns are condensed into a couple of months. Why can’t we do that?
This year, we will. Joe Biden is hunkered down in Delaware, mapping his strategy, figuring the President will keep tripping over his fragile ego. He can hold his fire until the August convention, if there is one at all.
And maybe we will learn if a mercifully abbreviated 10-week campaign results in a better election – not necessarily in the outcome, but in the depth and quality of the national discourse.
(Ross Anderson is a retired newspaper reporter and a founding member of the Rainshadow Journal collective.)