Covering the Horse Race

Seriously, Jack Shafer isn’t the only person I read.

But his piece in Slate today is on a subject I’ve been thinking about lately as we wind our way toward the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Today, Shafer notes hand-wringing among journalists who worry that the media is too focused on the horse race aspect of the race for the presidency, and doesn’t focus enough on the issues and each candidate’s positions.

Shafer asks, Why not cover it like a horse race? This is a contest after all:

Consider the fullness of the metaphor: A bunch of perfectly groomed and tended politicians gather at the starting gate. They all have track records and somebody has placed a bet on them. When the gun sounds, they run like Seabiscuit, frothing and jostling. Some pull up lame before the race concludes. The event, which seems to go on forever, can be a blowout or end in a photo finish. The winner takes a victory bow as the losers regroup for the next heat or depart for the glue factory.

During an actual horse race, nobody wants to hear the announcer drone on about the ponies’ dietary regimes. They want to know who’s winning, who’s gaining, who’s in the thick of it, and who can be written off. Are the front-runners burning themselves out and letting a back marker take the prize? That which cannot be compressed into an announcer’s play-by-play ends up in the learned pages of the Daily Racing Form. But for immediacy, nothing rivals a great horse-race take.

Well, it might make for a great metaphor, but it sure does our news audience a disservice. Shafer notes that if readers and viewers want information on a candidates positions on important issues, that information is merely a click away, with sites like Mother Jones providing in-depth analysis. “If you’re not an informed political consumer this year, you have nobody to blame but yourself,” he says.

But why make our audience have to hunt for all that information? Why abdicate that coverage to news sources beyond what most readers and viewers have regular, easy access to? Part of our duty as news providers is to, you know, provide the news, not expect the public to find it for themselves. And why contribute to the din of horse race coverage when you can stand out by providing honest analysis of what these candidates actually stand for?

Horse race coverage has its place. It’s important to know which candidates have the staying power — in terms of money, charisma, organization and strategy — to go the distance. But what good is that knowledge without providing for readers and viewers a full understanding of what these people are about?

The truth is, to accurately, smartly and thoroughly cover candidates’ stands on issues, news organizations have to devote much more time, energy and resources than they can usually invest. It takes hard digging — through interviews, public records, past legislation — to research exactly what a candidate really stands for, and many news organizations would rather concentrate on the day-to-day slog of the campaign — the cheap shots, the bickering, the theater — than roll up their sleeves and dig.

Even more than that, I think many news organizations are simply too afraid of being seen as biased toward one candidate or party to challenge candidates on where they stand, and call them out when they distort their record, as we know so many of them do. Glen Johnson, the AP reporter who challenged Mitt Romney last week, has the right idea. When they lie, call them on it, don’t back down and tell the American people what you found out. Only then will we come close to providing the kind of public service we so often say we strive for.

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