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2020

Media Can Kick Its Horserace Addiction—And It Must

When Elizabeth Warren began her presidential campaign last week, and the commentariat tumbled into its collective navel pondering the senator’s “likability,” it infuriated those of us who hoped the political press would improve upon its abysmal performance in the 2016 election.

“The prospect of repetition is grim but, from the early signs, all too likely,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.

The press critic Jay Rosen bemoaned that “after the debacle of 2016, the horse race model and ‘game’ schema that have instructed campaign journalism for at least 40 years are up and running again. It appears the bosses have no better ideas, and no will to develop them.”

Warren, perhaps more than any candidate in the horeserace journalism era, is tailor made for a more substantive model of campaign journalism that doesn’t really exist yet. She lacks the decades of baggage, real and fabricated, that made nitpicking Hillary Clinton’s every statement and decision irresistible catnip for journalists. She has celebrity status within her party, like many presidential candidates do, but she fostered hers not through the power of raw charisma, but with a relentless focus on the way our political economy has screwed regular people. Before she was a senator she built a federal consumer-protection agency from scratch.

The reflexive obsession with her likability, while incorrect on its own terms, looks even stupider against the backdrop of Warren’s career successes, which are, by no coincidence, a perfect match for the growing political consensus that the fleecing of the American middle class has made politics extremely combustible.

Why didn’t we do better? I think the answer lies where so many problems in political journalism lie: with the media’s misbegotten habit of prizing partisan balance over its obligation to faithfully represent political reality to consumers. But there’s a better way to cover presidential politics, and with the failures of 2016 still fresh on everyone’s mind, there’s never been a better time to propose fresh approaches—even ones that challenge old dogmas.


The trouble with using 2016 as a benchmark for how not to cover a presidential campaign, as both Sullivan and Rosen note in different ways, is that in modern history, our media institutions have rarely done much better. Trump placed the recklessness of the horserace model, and its cult of personalities, in sharp relief—but even in doing so, he merely stamped his name on a problem that George W. Bush had exposed in 2000, and that began several cycles before then.

The tussle between news consumers and horserace journalists has been a fixture of our public debate for much longer than I’ve been writing about politics, but at no point has the horserace model had strong, principled defenders. At many junctures, the horserace journalists themselves have acknowledged their own shortcomings, and promised to do better, only to touch down in Iowa a few months later and revert to form.

In 2007, long before he got bounced from the political establishment for sexually abusing his underlings, the ur-horserace junky Mark Halperin wrote a born-again article for the New York Times in which he apologized for dedicating his life’s work to treating politics like sport. In between, he made millions of dollars writing one book called Game Change and another book called Double Down.

A big unanswered question about political journalism is why, against what they claim as their own better judgment, journalists keep returning to a mode of reporting that is quite plainly harming the profession’s credibility.

Over the years, and through today, the political reporters who’ve been willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of the horserace model have tended to frame this professional conundrum in defeatist terms. Yes, elections are really about concrete stakes, but the superficial aspects of a campaign—the barbs, and poll numbers, and ads—always change, while the policy platforms, once unveiled, rarely do. Horserace coverage may be the worst form of campaign journalism, except for all the others.

This response resonated most strongly in early days of feed-the-beast Internet journalism. Today strains credulity more and more with each new dispatch from a homespun diner where die-hard Trump supporters still support Donald Trump. If the Trump era has revealed anything new about the demands media outlets believe they face, it’s that “dynamism” isn’t really one of them, because there’s nothing more static in today’s political literature than that particular genre.

These stories from the bastions of Trump country are overwhelmingly terrible, but they also suggest that a better alternative to the horserace model is staring us in the face—we just need political media companies to prioritize asking voters other, more interesting questions, that go beyond which candidates they support.


Rosen has argued in the past for widespread adoption of a model called the “citizens agenda,” in which reporters, with all the horserace resources of their outlets behind them, survey voters with a single question: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?”

This approach would place substance at the center of the campaign reporting project, but it is also the recipe for serving news consumers a dog’s breakfast of parochial concerns and competing priorities. A better question for journalists to explore—one that would bring to bear the standard reportorial toolkit of the Trump-country diner genre—is whether various candidate agendas are responsive to real, identifiable human problems. Why are the candidates running on the ideas they’re running on? Every presidential candidate develops a platform, and never once in the history of democracy has a candidate adopted a governing agenda entirely at random. Rather, candidates adopt their proposals in response to a variety of pressures, including from donors, constituents, and their own perceptions of what’s politically viable.

Why are most Democratic presidential candidates embracing a program of Medicare-based universal health care? Is it literally true that the current health-care system leaves tens of millions of people uninsured? Would those people lives be materially improved if America had a single-payer health-care system? Do those people hope a candidate who supports single payer wins the election? There are, of course, other stakeholders in the health-care debate, but they, too, are approachable humans, just like Trump supporters in rural diners. Do doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators want to insure the uninsured? What if it reduces their income-per-patient? Do the health care professionals in rural America think the Republican resistance to Medicaid expansion has been good for their communities? Where do the answers to those questions leave them, politically, with elections looming?

That’s just one issue, but the model can be applied across the whole range.

Why do Democratic candidates think the country needs a Green New Deal? Young voters don’t frequent rural diners, but they are also not very hard to find, and they have opinions about the urgency of both reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the kinds of jobs available to them, and what those jobs pay. What do voters think about the idea of cutting capital-gains taxes? About deregulating the financial and energy sectors? About citizenship for unauthorized immigrants without criminal records? About cutting legal immigration?

These aren’t abstract questions, they are questions about things candidates will try to do in office, and thus completely pertinent questions for campaign-trail reporters to ask. Because political reporters did such an abysmal job sorting things out for voters in 2016, they now go to rural diners and occasionally find former Trump supporters who lost faith when they discovered that their chosen candidate passed enormous corporate tax cuts, tried to throw millions of people off of Medicaid, and so on. Trump did his level best to mislead these voters on the campaign trail, but when it came time to put his agenda on paper three years ago, he almost invariably embraced doctrinaire Republicanism. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton was extremely careless with her emails, so naturally there was no time to ask voters whether they’d prefer a public option or the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

An approach that mapped candidate agendas on to the realities of American life would leave plenty of time and space for digging into candidate backgrounds, and vetting them for honesty, ethics, and other character issues. Its major drawback isn’t inherent to the reporting model but to the ways it would clash with the existing professional habits of political journalists.


As long as journalists feel compelled to appear balanced—to offset negative stories about one candidate with negative stories about the other, and report that views on the color of the sky differ—they will struggle to bring more substantive coverage to the campaign trail, or simply decide it’s not worth the trouble.

That wouldn’t necessarily be the case if the parties were actually symmetric, but the GOP is genuinely more ideologically rigid than the Democratic Party, which is why, as its agenda has grown unpopular, Republican candidates have grown increasingly comfortable lying about it, rather than embrace new ideas.

Trump brought new innovations to that trend, but it didn’t begin with him. For decades now, Republicans have insisted against all evidence that regressive tax cuts spur economic growth, and thus increase federal revenue. Before Trump came along, they claimed to have ideas about how to insure all Americans, while claiming the Affordable Care Act included a death panel. Neither claim was true. But under Trump’s leadership, Republicans have made ever more outrageous claims—that their bills and lawsuits aimed at gutting protections for people with pre-existing conditions would actually strengthen protections for people with pre-existing conditions, that funneling billions of dollars out of health-care spending wouldn’t cause people to lose insurance.

In a world where media companies prized truth over contriving balance, this endemic dishonesty wouldn’t matter. In the world we inhabit, a campaign-reporting model based on talking to voters about real priorities will inevitably inflame hostilities between the mainstream press and Republicans. Once reporters have committed themselves to the goal of holding the candidates’ policies up against voters’ preferences and the realities of American life, they will find it hard to avoid reckoning with the merits of ideas—not whether they’re good or bad, necessarily, but whether they answer popular demands.

The Green New Deal concept raises challenging questions for supporters and detractors alike—about the habitability of the planet, yes, but also about energy prices, taxes, sprawl, and international cooperation. As long as Republicans insist that climate change is fake, though, any reporting approach that presumes climate change is a problem policymakers should address will be vulnerable to accusations of partisan bias. And that will in turn make endless musing about how various climate change plans will play in Peoria seem more appealing. If some candidates propose more health care spending because they want to insure the uninsured, and it turns out voters support this goal, what happens when Republicans say they share that goal, but intend to achieve it by repealing Medicaid expansion and freeing insurance companies to discriminate against the sick? What happens when they say it’s “biased” to report that their approach will increase, not decrease, the uninsured population?

The answer should be damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. First, because there is no amount of blindness to the issues that will stop conservatives from accusing the mainstream press of liberal bias. Second, because the alternative approach is damaging journalism itself. NBC’s Meet the Press recently acknowledged, if only indirectly, that too many of the decisions journalists make are driven by privileging partisan balance over truth.

This was a widely hailed decision, and a good one, but also a damning statement about How Things Are Normally Done. It should be completely unremarkable for journalists to choose to provide truthful information, rather than muddy the truth with information they know to be false. The reason it seemed extraordinary is the answer to the question of why the horesrace addiction has proved impossible to kick. It would be both appropriate and cleansing to the profession if journalists responded to Trump’s relentless abuse by casting off the shackles that have bound them to failed reporting models and embracing truth as a lodestar.

And the best thing about it is it wouldn’t require anyone to jettison basic reporting techniques or disrupt the existing arrangements of their news desks. After they get to know the candidates, just point campaign reporters to the hubs and outposts of American life—to diners, but also hospitals, flood zones, schools, colleges, shipping warehouses, military communities, and border towns—and let them talk to the people about what their aspiring leaders have in mind.

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