Let's spare a bit of sympathy for the reporters who found themselves running after Hillary Clinton's van last week in the hopes that they might get a few seconds of video of her stepping out of it and into whatever momentous event she was arriving at. I'm sure that as they took off in hot pursuit, more than a few thought to themselves, "This is pretty ridiculous." But they kept running anyway, and when they finally caught their breath, perhaps they had a chance to sit down and pen that blog post on Clinton's order at Chipotle that their editors were demanding.
Reporting from the presidential campaign trail is of a rite of passage in political journalism (even if some poor souls find themselves doing it again and again), and though it can have its moments of excitement, it's also a trial. Subsisting on unhealthy food and too little sleep, away from their families, the journalistic legion trudge from one event to another, hearing the same talking points repeated again and again, and trying to wring something resembling news from what everyone acknowledges is a bizarre and absurd charade.
Clinton in particular is making life difficult for those following her. First, she has little or no opposition; how can you spin exciting tales about a contest in which there's only one contestant? Second, her campaign is conducting a kind of soft rollout—no big speeches, nothing planned too far in advance, just some "spontaneous," small-scale meet-and-greets with voters that reporters are either barred from or not given much notice about. If you were assigned to the Clinton beat and it was your charge to report news from this campaign, you might be getting desperate already. And so you'd find yourself chasing after her van as it rolled into a parking lot, hoping desperately that something exciting might happen when it came to a stop. Maybe the door will open to reveal her in a passionate embrace with Justin Timberlake, or someone will throw a pie at her when she emerges. Something, anything.
That endless need to produce content—and fast—is the source of many if not most of the pathologies of contemporary campaign coverage. And the easiest way to put the "new" in "news" is to write about the horse race, because even if it hasn't changed since yesterday, it still sounds current even if you're repeating yourself.
And unlike deep, substantive dives into issues, the horse race is inherently dramatic in a way a comparison of the candidates' varying ideas about monetary policy isn't, though the latter is much more consequential for people's lives. The horse race has conflict, antagonists, twists and turns leading to an eventual climax in which a victor rises and foes are vanquished.
So is there a way to reconcile these two competing needs—to inform the public about things that matter, and to produce daily news that moves the larger story of the campaign forward? It's hard, but I'd make one suggestion: Reporters could do their best to tie whatever controversy or conflict or "gaffe" we're consumed with at a particular moment to the job one of these people will be doing come January 2017. If you're going to say something a candidate said or did "raises questions," tell us what those questions are. For instance, Marco Rubio (43) is presenting himself as the youthful alternative not only to Clinton (67) but also to Jeb Bush (62). That could be interesting, but instead of just saying, "Ooo, Rubio made a reference to a rapper!" why not ask what this issue might mean for the presidency? Is there something the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton (the three youngest upon taking office) had in common that reveals something about what a Rubio presidency would be like? Is there any reason to believe Clinton or Bush would be hindered in their energy level (or in any other way) by their relatively advanced ages?
You ought to be able to come up with similar questions focused on the presidency about whatever the candidates have decided to put on the agenda. And if it's difficult or impossible to determine what the micro-controversy of the moment has to do with what the next president will face in office, maybe it isn't worth talking about.
The trouble is that putting the day's events in context to reveal something important can be difficult and time-consuming. So instead, what we get from the campaign trail is a thousand stories that sound like this:
Here's what the candidate did today.
Here are the parts of the electorate she/he is trying to appeal to.
Here's how the day's message tried to appeal to those people.
Here are her/his weaknesses and the negative parts of her/his image.
Here's where she/he stands in the polls.
Back to you, Bob.
The good news is that there's never been a better time in history to be a citizen looking to be informed about presidential politics. There are more news outlets than ever before, and more easily available sources of information than someone living 50 or 100 years ago could have dreamed of as they contemplated their votes. Whatever you're looking for in campaign coverage, whether it's fine-grained background analyses of issues, detailed examinations of the candidates' records, or up-close-and-personal profiles of their pets, you can find it somewhere.
Which you'd think would spur those more traditional media of newspapers, radio, and television to devise new ways to bring their audiences compelling and edifying news. And maybe it will, someday. But they're still trying to figure out how.