When I turn on the news I very rarely hear political issue reporting. What I hear is political strategy reporting, and I don’t know what to make of it.
Let’s say there’s a candidate running in some election with lots of Latino voters. Instead of asking “Why would a Latino voter prefer this candidate’s platform?” journalists are more likely to ask “What is this candidate doing to reach out to Latino voters?” These are different questions. The first question requires an analysis of the candidate’s record and policies as they relate to the concerns of a particular group of voters. The second question only requires a reiteration of what the candidate has recently done or said in effort to look appealing to that group as part of an explicit campaign strategy.
I’ve never planned to run for political office, yet in listening to the news over the past couple of decades I’ve received thousands of hours of political strategy coaching from pundits eagerly describing just what a candidate would need to do to convince someone to vote for them. Why should I care?
One could argue that to be an informed voter we must understand the tactics of persuasion employed in political races so we won’t be fooled. And one could argue that a candidate’s strategy reflects something about his or her character — that in analyzing a candidate’s strategy we learn who the candidate is, how they think, and what matters to them, and that in studying how voters respond to campaign strategies we learn about the mood and sentiment of the country. These are fair points but they don’t address the disaster of political journalism – that in focusing on the endless intricacies of strategy, we lose track of substance.
Strategy is easier than substance and safer than substance to discuss. A journalist striving to remain impartial never needs to endorse or oppose a candidate’s position, or pass anything resembling judgment on it. The journalist only needs to ask how the candidate’s recent gestures are likely to be interpreted by voters, a question that can be explored through the endlessly bountiful mechanisms of gossip and polling – certain to fill as much airtime as necessary.
And I, as a voter, am left with little information to use in selecting a candidate, but a whole lot of information I might be able to use in crafting an image that would make me appealing to Latino voters (or black voters, or elderly voters, or young voters, or whatever) if I decided I wanted to enter politics. No need to pay a campaign strategist, I could just turn on the radio and do what they tell me.
Just today I listened to my local radio station WGBH and got some advice I could use if I were Bill Clinton and I were wondering whether my involvement in Hillary’s presidential campaign would be an asset or a hindrance. And I got some great advice I could use if I were Chris Christie and I wanted to know whether voters considered my presidential bid to be over. But since I am neither of these people I’m still struggling to find any practical application for the generous strategy guidance I spent a chunk of my morning receiving.
As for journalistic impartiality, I don’t consider strategy reporting impartial at all. Journalists who focus on strategy reporting are casting partisan votes in favor of strategy over substance as the thing that’s worth our time.