For journalists, second-guessing election coverage is second nature.
So it wasn’t surprising that Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post media columnist, recently offered reporters what the headline called a “radical idea:” Forget the polls and the horse race and focus on substance. As she described it, the media usually treats issues of substance as a “moderate helping of steamed broccoli that can be shoved to the side of the plate.” Others, including Frank Bruni of The New York Times, have made similar appeals.
It wasn’t the first time we’d heard that advice from a Post columnist.
In 1991 David Broder made the same argument in a speech at the University of California, Riverside. Still chafed by what he saw as the trivialization of coverage of the 1988 presidential campaign, Broder urged journalists to hold themselves accountable to voters, not politicians. Treat campaigns less as a horse race, he said, and more as a job application for governing.
That resonated with editors here at The Charlotte Observer. It also drew interest from the Poynter Institute and from Jay Rosen, a media critic and associate professor at New York University and apostle of what became known as “public journalism.”
As Sullivan wrote, the Observer helped pioneer the practice, first alone for the 1992 elections and again for the 1996 elections with a partnership of other North Carolina newspapers and TV stations. Each time we developed a “citizens agenda” and used it to hold candidates to account throughout the campaign.
Now, nearly three decades later, should that be the model for election coverage? As somebody involved in the projects at the time, I’d have to say—yes and no.
Yes because we should always keep the voters—our readers and viewers—in the forefront of coverage. They’re the ones who will have to make a choice. We should write about what they care about and how a particular candidate would affect their lives. Too often the latest tweets, polls, or other shiny objects of politics have little to do with that.
No because, well, for several reasons.
One, so much has changed in the media and in politics. When we started in 1991, CNN essentially had the cable news audience to itself. There was no Fox News or MSNBC, no Hannity or Morning Joe. There were no blogs, no Drudge Report, no smart phones. Social media was a bunch of reporters meeting for drinks after work. The World Wide Web was just starting, and mid-size papers like ours could claim a sizable chunk of regional eyeballs. These days we reach a larger digital audience. But we compete with a larger universe of coverage that’s on the air, on your phone, and around the clock.
Newspapers themselves were robust money machines. With a few prominent exceptions, that’s changed across the industry. The Observer had about 110 reporters in the 1990s. We now have a fraction of the number. Though papers still write about issues, in many cases the expertise they once had—say in health care or the environment—is gone.
Politics has changed too. Candidates are more disciplined about controlling their own messages. And thanks to court decisions like Citizens United, they and their allies have more money to do it. In 2012, Barack Obama’s campaign came under fire for “quote approval,” the practice of forcing reporters to get quotes from campaign officials approved by headquarters. The Times’s Jeremy Peters reported that Mitt Romney’s campaign sometimes did the same thing. That may be gone, but the discipline remains.
It would be hard to persuade most candidates for governor and senator to come to a college campus, as we did in 1996, and respond to questions on a “citizens agenda” from a battery of reporters.
We did some great reporting back then. There were lengthy, detailed takeouts on issues such as education, crime, health care, the environment, and the economy. The topics were culled from statewide polls and public forums. Stories relied on real people to illustrate an issue. We used full-page grids to compare candidate positions. If a candidate refused to take part, we left white space, as former U.S. Senator Terry Sanford once found out.
Whenever candidates stumped through the Carolinas, we went armed with questions from citizens: “Mr. Clinton, Anne Siegert of Lake Norman wants to know…” Some candidates, including Pat Buchanan, answered questions in person from a panel of readers. The questions had to do not with the horserace but about issues important to them and their lives.
But lost in all that was much of the color of campaigns. Even readers said the coverage often resembled those helpings of steamed broccoli. Campaigns, after all, are about people. People under stress and responding to unforeseen events. But that, too, can be carried to extremes.
Responding to Sullivan and Rosen, Jack Shafer wrote a column for Politico this year headlined, “Why Horse-Race Political Journalism Is Awesome.”
“Horseracism might be scary if the campaign press corps produced nothing but who’s up/who’s down stories,” he wrote. “But that’s never been the case. … Like it or not, political campaigns are contests in which the prize goes to the victor and the loser goes home. It’s not antidemocratic for journalists to measure support by checking polls, campaign donations, audience size and endorsements.”
I asked my former editor, Rich Oppel, what he thinks of our public journalism experiment a quarter-century later.
“It remains a good idea to start political coverage or a single story by understanding the challenges that voters face,” said Oppel, who went on to other editing jobs including at the Austin American-Statesman. “David Broder did that better than anyone, dating back into the 1960s. Too often today, reporters covering Washington are like terriers on the White House lawn, chasing every ball thrown out by President Trump. While that provides great entertainment … there’s little nutritional value for voters who truly want to understand the challenges our nation faces.
“So I believe in citizen agendas, and I think many reporters today have largely integrated the concept into their work, without the cumbersome forums and public meetings in the early days of public journalism. … Citizens may have their agendas, but the politicians have theirs as well.”
As it will across the country, 2020 will be a busy election year here in North Carolina. Not only is there a presidential race—and a national convention here in Charlotte—but there will be major statewide elections and dozens of important races for Congress and the state legislature. We’ll have fewer resources than we did in 2012 or 2016 but we’ll be able to leverage them with those of our sister papers in Raleigh and throughout the Carolinas.
Should we write about issues and voters? Of course. And we do.
In 2016 my colleague Tim Funk visited the small N.C. town of Faith. There he talked to people who felt the loss of the textile industry and the pain of economic dislocation. “There are no jobs,” said a young tradesman, adding that he felt he was competing for work with undocumented immigrants. They were the kind of voters who helped Trump surprise pollsters and carry the state.
That’s part of the basics of election coverage. Just like background checks and stories about a candidate’s record. Even occasional stories about the horse race.
So in covering elections, we shouldn’t forget about the broccoli. But we also need the meat and potatoes.