Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, greets supporters at his caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Pity the poor American campaign journalist. The 2012 election, says Politico’s Dylan Byers, quoting The New York Times Magazine’s Mark Leibovich, has been characterized by a “devastating ‘joylessness.’” “Until the candidates restore joy, it’s impossible for us to be joyful,” adds NBC News senior White House correspondent Chuck Todd. “If these candidates were comfortable, the campaign might be joyful to cover.”
Heart-rending as these laments may be, they strike one as decidedly misplaced with regard to the actual victims of this campaign. After all, the reporters are being paid pretty well for their self-pity parties, to say nothing of the meals, mini-bar drinks and soft-core porn they can usually expense to their employers. For the consumers of American journalism, a k a “voters,” however, this campaign has not merely been joyless; it’s been all but substanceless—when it hasn’t been deliberately deceptive. For despite the participation of tens of thousands of journalists spending tens of millions of dollars using a dizzying array of communications technology devoted to covering the campaign, the system ultimately fails to justify itself in its most essential purpose: to ensure accountability for citizens and their leaders and to offer the kind of information necessary to help voters make an educated choice for the future of their country.
The problems are myriad and often difficult to disentangle, but two of them are most salient. First is the role that the relentless focus on campaign trivia plays in the coverage. Save fundraising, which is usually done privately, nothing much happens for most of the time that reporters are assigned to cover campaigns. The result is that most end up filing stories so trivial and ultimately meaningless it’s hard to imagine that even their authors could today defend their relevance or significance. Oftentimes, such stories are justified as investigations into “character” and resemble entertainment reporting. Later on in the process, the reporters tend to tie themselves to horse race coverage and focus alternately on the internal processes of the campaigns or the temporary state of the polls, calling to mind the sports pages. Then again, quite a few campaign stories are simply stupid and unrelated to almost anything.
The second, and related, dynamic involves the inability of mainstream reporters to admit to, and account for, the radicalization of the Republican Party—whether it involves the candidates’ commitment to extremist ideology, or their refusal to allow observable reality to compete with their economic theories, their scientific ignorance, or their loyalty to billionaire funders like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. So intense is journalists’ belief that they must find a way to blame “both sides” for whatever one candidate happens to say or do—whether it’s telling an outright lie, making a 180-degree change in position, or refusing to accept a simple economic or scientific fact—that the Republicans have largely been given a pass for the consequences of their Tea Party takeover. Writing to New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, reader Richard Joffe described the situation with admirable acuity: