I try to avoid being an advocate of the eat-your-peas model of campaign coverage. If the campaign were nothing but competing position papers, it would be terribly boring. Politics is compelling because it affects all of our lives, but also because it features interesting characters engaged in furious conflict. All that being said, however, a focus on trivia can be taken too far, and it usually is.
Which is why I'm glad that NPR's David Folkenflik did a story on New York Times columnist Gail Collins' bizarre obsession with Mitt Romney's dog. In case you're unfamiliar with the story, in 2008 it came out that Romney once took his family on a vacation with the dog strapped to the roof of the car. The dog was in a carrier, but it still struck many dog owners as a little crazy.
So what does this reveal to us about Romney? That he's indifferent to the risk of animal injury in high-speed crashes? Or what? Here's an excerpt from the story:
"I don't know what it is about that factoid that interests me more than Ron Paul's theories about the Federal Reserve — or anything else about any of these other candidates," Collins said.
She has already cited the dog in just shy of three dozen columns. Why would she do that? Collins says such moments can reveal character — in this case, Romney's rigid emphasis on efficiency.
"When I started writing columns, I thought that my goal would be to get people more interested in politics and to try and do it in a way that did not cause them to want to throw themselves out the nearest window," Collins told me during an interview at her office in midtown Manhattan. "And Seamus works very well on that front."
Collins mentioned the dog so often that Dartmouth political science professor Brendan Nyhan started keeping a running tally. "She's trying to be funny — I get that. I appreciate a good campaign story as much as the next person," Nyhan said. "But I do think it's representative of the way that the media focuses on trivia, things that are so inconsequential. Mitt Romney is not running for dogcatcher — he's running for president of the United States."
Although I stopped finding Collins' columns interesting some time ago, these days I usually skim them just to see if Romney's dog makes an appearance. And the answer, no matter what the topic, is invariably yes. Collins could write a column about Chinese monetary policy, and she'd manage to work in a reference to Romney's friggin' dog. And what's so weird about it is that despite her enthusiasm for this story, it's really hard to figure out why it's supposedly so revealing. This story really tells us so much more about "Romney's rigid emphasis on efficiency" than anything else she could come up with? Really? Even if you thought it was revealing, that may have been true of the first time you told the story, and maybe the second or third time. But by the 38th time, is it really helping your readers understand Romney any better than they otherwise did?
More than anything else, it's just lazy writing. And it's too bad, because there is no more valuable perch in the entire universe of American journalism than a spot on the New York Times op-ed page. None. If you're a Times columnist, you have unmatched prestige, you can go on the Sunday shows pretty much whenever you want, and your books are almost guaranteed to be best-sellers. Everyone who writes about politics (present company included) would give their right arm to be on the Times op-ed page. That ought to come with an obligation to work hard to make each column something distinctive and worthwhile. Or so you'd think.