Horse Race Journalism Is Not Our Fault

There’s been a little buzz lately over the Washington Post‘s ombudsman piece the other day criticizing the Post for too much “horse race” coverage of the health care debate. Putative causes have cited political obsession among reporters and editors, profit maximizing behavior, and competitive necessity, but Kevin Drum offers this explanation.

This is only going to get worse.  I don’t think mainstream news outlets have ever been all that good at explaining policy, but they’ve probably gotten worse over the years as attention spans have shortened and the media environment has gotten ever louder and more ubiquitous.  You really can’t explain healthcare reform in two minutes, but fewer and fewer people are willing to sit around for much longer than that.

The fault, in other words, lies not in the media, but in ourselvesThe mainstream media may have written ten times as much about the townhalls as they did about the actual substance of the healthcare proposals on the table, but the blogosphere only did a little better. Even here in wonkland, the outrage of the day is a much more tempting blog topic than reimbursement rates for Medicare.

I’m not so sure about this. First, with respect to the town halls specifically, coverage in the mainstream media and cable news was somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, the fact that lunatics and their cynical agitators knew that nutty behavior would drive coverage spawned more and more nutty behavior, and more and more coverage of nutty behavior. If the media decided that accurate reporting of events meant not giving disproportionate attention to a minority of people, it’s unlikely things would have played the way they did. But this is all secondary.

My memory could be flawed, but I’m pretty sure most of people I read on the blogosphere spent their energy debunking some of the absurd claims made in the town halls or talking about animating factors, not bloviating about political strategy. Even if the general topic was the same, the conversation was totally different. Whereas people with blogs would address statements made in town halls and expose them as ludicrous fantasies, the mainstream media would report the events and discuss the ramifications for certain political actors. The former is helpful from a standpoint of informing the public, the latter is not. I’ve said it a million times, but the point of politics is governing, not winning debates, but the mainstream media seems to disagree with me. And certainly, not all discourse in the blogosphere was informative, but it was certainly better than coverage in the mainstream media.

Anyway, it’s hard to see how this improves. As Kevin noted earlier in his post, horse race coverage partially stems from the need to report news, and twists and turns in legislative sausage making happen far more frequently than policy proposals. However, that doesn’t mean coverage of politics has to be removed from the policies being discussed to the absurd extent they often are. For example, if reporters feel compelled to report that a gun-toting loon opposes a “government take-over” of the health care system, the reporter could at least mention that no such thing is under consideration, the unctuous blabbering of GOP operatives notwithstanding.

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