Journos Complain that Journos Aren't Taking 2012 Seriously

The headline story at Politico is a look at the frustrations of journalists and other observers as they pertain to the 2012 presidential election. In short, they are frustrated with the “small scale” of the election, and the degree to which the campaigns are engaged in constant warfare over trivial concerns. Here’s Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns:

Dating to the beginning of the cycle, 2012 has unfolded so far as a grinding, joyless slog, falling short in every respect of the larger-than-life personalities and debates of the 2008 campaign.

There have been small-ball presidential campaigns before, but veteran strategists and observers agree this race is reaching a record degree of triviality. Nothing previously can compare with a race being fought hour by hour in 140-character Twitter increments and blink-and-you-miss-it cable segments. Not to mention an endless flood of caustic television ads. […]

At the same time, the media bemoans the small campaign but is enduring its own version of self-loathing and powerlessness. The endless news cycle, infused with partisanship thanks to cable news and coupled with the Internet-age imperative to produce faster, more provocative copy, has amplified every cynical and self-indulgent impulse of the political press — POLITICO included.

What’s frustrating about this, besides the fact that it’s hilariously un-self-aware, is that Politico treats the press—and itself—as if it’s helpless in the face of mean tweets and negative ads. The monstrous truth of this dynamic is that it’s driven by political journalists. They are the ones who breathlessly cover campaign tweets in a desperate bid for web traffic, they are the ones who act as glorified opposition researchers, evaluating claims on the basis of whether they’ll be used in an ad, and not whether they’re accurate or truthful. The obsessive focus on trivia, the constant search for gaffes—these are things generated by the political press.

If reporters wanted to, they could focus on the actual substance of the campaign—and as many other journalists have shown, there is real substance in this contest. Instead of hounding Romney about the veepstakes, why not ask him to outline his plan for cutting spending? Which programs would he eliminate? Which would he keep? On the same token, Romney has promised to restore economic growth with tax cuts and drilling. Independent experts say that Romney’s plan would do little for the short-term economy. Maybe you should ask him about this, and see what he has to say about the discrepancy? Paul Ryan’s budget has been widely condemned as radical and unworkable, but Romney supports its implementation. That seems important.

If you’re not into public policy, you could try asking Romney about his concern—or lack thereof—for the truth. Fact checkers like Politifact and Glenn Kessler have repeatedly knocked Romney for embracing false claims and faulty information. Many other commentators have accused Romney of running a “dishonest” and “unscrupulous” campaign. On everything from foreign policy—"Obama apologized for America”—to the economy—“Obama has lost more than TK jobs”—analysts have criticized Romney for misleading the public. It would be helpful, and interesting, to confront the former governor on all counts.

Barack Obama is also open to this kind of questioning. What would he do in a second term? How can he promise to break gridlock if Republicans continue to control a chamber of Congress? Does he have any plan for with health care reform if the individual mandate is struck down? These are questions that need answering, and moreover, can easily fit into a horserace story. Why not pursue them?

All of this is to say that the coverage described by Burns and Haberman isn’t the only possible coverage of this election. With little effort, you can easily imagine a more substantive and interesting treatment of the presidential campaign; journalists could inform readers, rather than exhaust them with vapid minutiae.

Update: Edited because, as Dylan Byers correctly points out, the piece is a lot more self-aware than I gave it credit for. 

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