The Crippling of Campaign Reporting

by Peter Spiliakos
Lame by Choice

Ryan Cooper thinks that campaigns don’t need campaign reporters anymore. That isn’t quite true. Campaign reporters could play a more informative and more entertaining – and a more important – role in our politics. The problem is that the political biases of the journalistic class lead campaign reporters to either miss stories or present stories as boring or incomprehensible.

In practice, political reporters try to think up the most embarrassing questions for Republican candidates while repeating Hillary Clinton campaign advertizing copy for her scripted, newsless public appearances. Republican scandals are hyped as matters of public interest. The people need to know. Democratic scandals are presented as barely comprehensible Republican attacks on Democrats. These partisan food fights are why people hate politics.  

Reporters complain that Clinton doesn’t give them the opportunity to ask questions, and they whine that they are afraid of losing access if they strike a hostile tone. The funny thing is, campaign reporters never seem to worry about losing access to when they go after a Republican. They don’t ask equally tough questions to Republicans because reporters don’t  want to ask those questions. Campaign reporters use their worries about access as an excuse (maybe even one they believe) to avoid going after Clinton like they would a Republican.

The Clinton campaign knows that the campaign reporters, no matter how much they complain, are ultimately on her side. She can lie to them, and they will take it easy on her the next time an opponent questions the honesty of her statements. She can treat them with disdain, and they will crawl to her for scraps while taking their frustrations out on the other party. They will (briefly) cover her campaign events in terms of her meeting with “small business owners” and flash images of her looking concerned. Half of campaign coverage consists of a more boring and hypocritical version of what is produced by the Democratic campaign.

There is a reason why campaigns have to pay for political commercials. People don’t want to see them. People are willing to put up with the commercials if the ads are bundled with something of value (either information or entertainment or both). The media treatment of Clinton (and of Obama before her) is making campaign reporters superfluous. The partisanship of the MSM campaign coverage makes campaign reporters both boring and uninformative at least half of the time, and it gives the reporters very little leverage in dealing with Democratic campaigns.

Campaign reporters don’t need to be easier on Republicans. They shouldn’t be easier on Republicans. They could be harder on the Democrats. Conservatives have suggested how reporters might ask awkward (but informative) questions of Democratic candidates that are analogous to the questions that are asked of Republicans. If the Clinton campaign won’t offer either access or substance, then reporters could build reports around the phoniness and emptiness of her campaign events. “Today, Hillary Clinton took scripted and vetted questions from a carefully chosen group of supporters as she once again avoided questions about her role in… ” If all she is offering you is cynicism, then make her cynicism the story.

A campaign reporting that was cynical about both parties would be better drama and better news. It would give people more reason to watch and make the watching more worthwhile. The problem is that the journalists themselves are overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning. It isn’t obvious that they could stomach (or even imagine) subjecting Clinton (or Obama, or any presumptive Democratic presidential nominee) to the same intense and hostile scrutiny as a second-tier Republican presidential candidate – much less a Republican presidential nominee.

It is much easier for the campaign journalists to shrug, and mumble something about how technology has made them less important.  Anyway, Hillary won’t talk to us, so we have to write another story about how she is taking questions from a group of diverse, independent, women. The good news is that we have some killer questions for Ted. Maybe we will tell him to answer en español.