Power Politics: Reporting the Real Issues


This article originally appeared in Issue# 44

Distress over the state of political reporting has now become a regular feature of every presidential campaign season. Candidates blame the press for focusing on the "horse race" to the exclusion of "the real issues." Journalists blame the candidates for failing to talk about such issues or for obscuring their positions when they do. Privately, both the candidates and the press blame the situation on the public, which is said to have neither the patience nor — let's face it — the intelligence to care about what really matters.

When it is all over, the pundits and the scholars assemble to rake over the entrails, speaking bromides into the wind.

After a couple of decades of such quadrennial self-scrutiny however, we now have more than enough evidence to disabuse us of any notion that the media might change the way they report election campaigns. While there will always be exceptions, most campaign coverage will continue to pay far greater attention to the candidates' positions in the race than to their positions on the issues.

There are different ways to respond to this fact. We can regard it as a sign of serious defects in journalism, for example. This has been the view of those "perfectibilists" like myself who believe that democratic governance requires maximum public participation in policy debates about the future of the country. Aren't election campaigns the ideal moment to involve the public in such debates? we have always asked.

Well, no, it turns out. Not if we sweep away the democratic rhetoric and take a good look at the reality of the system. When we do so we discover, for example, that reporters report campaigns as horse races because that is the way politicians talk about them.

Here is Franklin Roosevelt speaking in a recently rediscovered recording of a phone conversation about the strategy of his opponent in the 1940 campaign: Wendell Willkie. Willkie's manager will keep him well back until the campaign gets into the home stretch, Roosevelt says. "And my judgment is that they are going to start Willkie - pick him up, pick him up, pick him up - from the first of October on." As they approach the final days, the plan, he says, is to convince the voters that "this fella still can win — he's got time to win. He can nose out the other horse."

If we want to see another kind of reporting, we are first, as a people, going to have to create another kind of politics.

Over the years, reporters have come to understand this spectacle. Like good sports writers reporting the public rituals of competition in their own domain, political reporters have come to appreciate that the purpose of campaigning is victory and that the important talk in the midst of any run for the White House is talk about winning.

There are "issues," of course, and modern campaigns have "issues staffs." But the ghettoization of those who traffic in substance amidst those who traffic in victory is already a sign that in campaigns there is no organic relation between the pursuit of ideas and the pursuit of success.

American politics, remember, is often celebrated as “non-ideological." As political entities, our parties, as we all know, are rump coalitions designed more for acquiring and exercising power than for advancing consistent national agendas.

When you come right down to it, in fact, that's what elections are all about, too. They are ritual contests by which power is transferred in our society. What we like to call "the issues" play a role, of course, but they are secondary to the real business at hand, which is winning. The voters, naturally, understand this very well and, despite the entreaties of the pundits who bemoan their inattention to the issues, the people do not take seriously what the candidates themselves — crafting positions that will serve them at the polls — treat with contempt.

That is why the demand that the press do a better job of reporting the issues is just an empty imperative. The press, you see, does a very good job of reporting what the elections are all about, which is the struggle for power. If we want to see another kind of reporting, we are first, as a people, going to have to create another kind of politics.

"The problem is not that there is too much entertainment but that public discourse and cultural activities are increasingly forced to adopt the guise of entertainment."

— Roelf Haan
Author Bio: 

Robert Karl Manoff is the co-director the Center for War, Peace and the New Media at New York University.