Is Media Coverage of the 2020 Campaign Repeating the Old Mistakes?

AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks to reporters at the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston. 

The race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination is officially on. And it's already not going well.

I don't mean that as a knock on the candidates, who are an impressive (and large!) collection of officeholders. I'm talking about the way the media cover the race. And heaven help us, they seem to have learned nothing from what happened in 2016.

Or any year before that, for that matter. All this has me thinking back to the aftermath of the 1988 election, when news organizations decided that they had been manipulated into focusing the discussion on things like Willie Horton instead of more substantive issues. They held panel discussions and wrote essays about what had gone wrong in their coverage, and promised to do better. One of the results was the creation of the "ad watch," in which candidates' TV ads would be dissected to judge if they were accurate and fair. Reporters and editors promised that next time they'd focus less on the horse race and more on what the election would actually mean for Americans' lives.

Ad watches proliferated in 1992, but eventually became less common. Later on we saw the creation of projects like Politifact and factcheck.org, along with many fact-checkers employed by newspapers, in an attempt to not only correct the record when politicians lie but provide a disincentive to dishonesty. But as a whole, news coverage didn't change all that much: It was still poll-driven, centered on the horse race, and consumed with trivia. "What kind of president would this candidate be?" was a far less important question than "How will this latest gaffe play with voters?"

And it still is, despite what any sane person understands was a gigantic media failure in 2016. Faced with a candidate who was more blatantly dishonest than any politician in American history (he'd go on to make 8,158 false or misleading claims in his first two years in office), had zero relevant experience or understanding of government, had obvious disturbing ties to a foreign adversary, and was quite possibly the most corrupt major business figure in the country, they decided that the topic that required limitless journalist resources, column inches, and air time was the question of … whether Hillary Clinton used the wrong email account.

It's hard enough to wrap your head around that even today; imagine trying to explain it to your grandchildren decades from now that seasoned journalists decided that there was literally no more important question that the nation confronted. According to one study, "in just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election." Times reporter Michael Schmidt recently told NPR's Terry Gross that the paper formed a unit to investigate all the connections between Donald Trump and Russia—after the election was over.

Yet while there has been plenty of criticism of the 2016 coverage, almost none of the elite players inside the media have said, "We really screwed up, and here's how we think we can do better." Which may be why the coverage of the next presidential race isn't looking too encouraging.

Let's take, as an illustration, the two candidates who officially entered the race in the last few days, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. Warren is offering a candidacy that is both full of policy proposals, many of which she has introduced in recent months, and the one with the most coherent case for her election of any of the contenders. She argues that our system, both political and economic, has been built by and for the ultra-wealthy, and presents a number of radical policy changes—a wealth tax, a change to corporate board structures to give workers more power—that she says would attack ever-worsening inequality.

You might think those ideas are good or bad, but they're certainly not the principal focus of coverage of Warren's campaign. Instead, nearly every story you read—no matter whether it's about a speech Warren gave or a proposal she put out—will include discussion of Warren's Native American "issue," i.e. the fact that her parents told her she had Native roots, at times in her life she has identified more or less closely with Native peoples, and recently she took a DNA test to find out whether her genes said it was true.

To be clear, because I already hear the complaints: Whatever you think about how Warren has handled this issue, can you actually say it has something meaningful to say about the sort of president she'd be? About whether her program really would reduce inequality, or about whether her priorities are the best ones, or about her ability to get legislation passed in Congress, or about how she'd handle a foreign crisis?

Of course it doesn't. Yet we get consumed with "issues" like that one that seem to exist only within the four corners of the campaign, not because we think they're actually meaningful or revealing but because we assume they'll have an effect on voters. Meanwhile we completely forget that we're trying to figure out who would be the best president.

As for Klobuchar, before announcing her candidacy she suffered a minor deluge of stories describing poor treatment of her staff, which then led to meta-stories about how the story is hurting her nascent campaign. In this case, at least there's a connection between the identified Achilles's heel and what sort of a president she'd be; it's worth knowing how a politician treats those who work for her, because that could affect how effectively the White House operates. But it's hard to argue that it's the single most important thing to know about Klobuchar.

But it well might turn out that the press treats it that way. Once these "issues" take hold with reporters, they use them to frame what that candidate does from that point forward. "Still reeling from controversy over her racial identity, Elizabeth Warren announced today." "Trying to refocus attention away from the allegation that she mistreated her staff, Amy Klobuchar traveled to Iowa." Nothing they say or do can change it, yet everything they say or do is described as an attempt to distract from it.

The project of figuring out who candidates "really" are (as opposed to who they'd like us to think they are) is a perfectly worthy one, and if there's one lesson we should have learned it's that as president they're the same people they were before. Bill Clinton cheated on his wife before he was president, and while he was president. George W. Bush lied a lot about policy while he was a candidate, and did the same as president. Donald Trump was a corrupt liar his whole life, and still is.

The key, though, is exploring the connection: Here's who the candidate has been and is now, and this is why it would be important to their presidency. That's the part so many reporters seem to forget about once politicians start trudging through Iowa. But if there's good news, it's this: It's not too late for coverage of the campaign to get better. Those of us in the media just have to decide to do something different.

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