Journalism, as the fix for our politics

Connor Friedersdorf, writing for the Atlantic, suggests a new form of journalism – or rather, an optional new mission statement for journalism – that shuns the typical infatuation with inside baseball and “crisis of the hour” fascination, that avoids becoming mired in the intricacies or theatrics surrounding an issue, and that would likely yield far better results from our political leaders than we are getting now.

One way of looking at things is that governing is complicated, and journalists need to roll with it, doing the best that they can to explain the inside baseball. When Bob Woodward says, “I spent two months reporting on how they came to the sequester,” he’s presumably operating on that theory. But covering politics in that way is a choice. What if the political press is doing a disservice to Americans by making it? What if we’re needlessly tailoring our content to the prejudices and preferences of insiders without even fully realizing that there are other options available? What if this particular option more often than not empowers whoever is most adept at spin?

I see no way around explaining something as complicated and jargon-laden as the sequester, even though many educated Americans will either misunderstand it or tune it out completely. But daily accounts of the closed-door negotiations? Regular analysis of their tenor? Pieces on the inner thoughts and feelings of the people involved? Capturing all that accurately, given that every source involved has an incentive to lie or spin, seems impossible to achieve with any consistency. Perhaps it can be achieved, occasionally, by reporters who spend many months reconstructing events with as many sources as possible. But the press as it now operates attempts to publish this sort of journalism on an up-to-the-minute, look-what-just-happened basis.

Isn’t there a better way?

Well fear not – and go ahead and crawl back out from under the couch now – because it turns out there is.

But where Congress and the White House are concerned, what if the press put much greater emphasis put on “the sausage” and much less on the sausage-making? What if we judged legislators on their votes, Obama on what legislation he signs and vetoes, and left it at that?

Largely, this argument amounts to what the professionals describe as “process versus issues.” The press are typically inclined to write stories about the political process – and, more compellingly, those that screw up said process – while politicians would generally rather they write about the issues that they stand for. To borrow another quote from a certain TV show about a Democratic presidential administration:

“It’s gonna look like we screwed up the timing so the press is gonna write about process and not about issues, and getting political reporters to write about issues in the first place is like getting kids to eat their vegetables[…]Don’t you want to know how it’s like getting kids to eat their vegetables?[…]It helps if there’s nothing else on their plate.”

Anyway, back to Friedersdorf:

What if Congressional coverage focused on the merits of proposed legislation, committee votes, and floor votes; if rather than signalling seriousness by negotiating with Obama, legislators had to pass something to be taken seriously, regardless of what was said behind the scenes; what if Obama then signed or vetoed those bills and was evaluated on that basis, rather than being judged as orchestrator-in-chief? Who cares what he said in a private phone call with House Speaker John Boehner, whose ego was or wasn’t bruised, who “walked away from the table” during a particular session, or any other theatrics?

Said Tom Brokaw Monday: “The president, by my lights, spent entirely too much time the last two weeks campaigning, in effect, out around the country …. He ought to have been maybe at Camp David with Boehner and members of his team.” Is he right? Who can possible say with authority and credibility? What if instead, we acted like Congress is responsible for passing something and Obama must take responsibility for either signing tor vetoing it? I bet a bill would have been sent to him. 

Granted, focusing on outcomes is an imperfect way to assign credit and blame. But would the incentives nevertheless be better than in the insider model of politics coverage? Would reporting be more reliable? More relevant? Would politicians be less likely to posture — or, at least, would their posturing take the form of actually passing legislation to be adopted or rejected? Judging politicians in the way I suggest would be far more comprehensible and manageable to the average American voter, who has no time to parse who did what behind the scenes.

Sounds good from where I’m sitting.

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