With roughly 16 months to go before the 2016 presidential election, it has already become clear that the long trend toward increasingly worse election coverage is not about to be interrupted. The primary problem—and I am already sick of saying this—is the inability of mainstream-media professionals to acknowledge the dominant role that unrestricted bribery plays in shaping our political discourse. Making matters worse is the related problem of a Republican Party in thrall to a series of postures determined, on the one hand, by its super-wealthy funders and, on the other, by the ignorant superstitions of its fundamentalist base.
But there is a third problem at the center of our political universe: that of voluntary journalistic stupidity. It’s not that the journalists are stupid. It’s that they believe they must pretend to be stupid in the service of a single narrative designed to last only until the next one replaces it—sometimes in a matter of minutes.
A perfect example of this phenomenon—call it the Politico-ization of our politics—was the respectful coverage accorded the recent announcement of George Pataki’s campaign for president. Polling at 0 percent at the time of his announcement (well behind “none of the above,” which is no small feat in a field of nearly 20 candidates), Pataki is no more likely to play a meaningful role in the nomination process than I am. He has not held public office since declining to stand for reelection as Governor of New York in 2006. Since then, he appears to have been doing nothing much save toying with the delusional notion of a presidential campaign. As Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold noted, “This January on ‘Jeopardy,’ three contestants were shown a photo of Pataki’s face—but none could remember his name. Last month, when he shook hands with patrons in a New Hampshire Chipotle, many said afterward that they had no idea who he was” (and no, he was not wearing dark sunglasses à la Hillary).
Larry Sabato is one of those quotable pundits who always pretend to know something regardless of the question. But when asked by The New Yorker what Pataki had been doing for the past decade, he admitted he had no idea. Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson summed up the campaign’s chances best when he predicted that the sight of a Pataki victory was as likely as that of “a monkey flying out of a unicorn’s ass.”
Everything about Pataki’s campaign is ridiculous except where it is nonexistent. He gives no evidence of a significant organization, backers, or financial support. You can’t even tell who he is in the announcement photograph he released. And yet as soon as Politico broke the nonstory of his announcement, virtually every news organization covered it. (The Wall Street Journal even sent out a “news alert.” It should have been a “missing person’s report.”) The award for the most egregious coverage goes to The New York Times for carrying at least 20 stories mentioning Pataki on its website, with a significant percentage focusing on his candidacy as if it were a real thing. This is journalism on intellectual autopilot.