I maintain that the press ought to change the narrative structure of pre-primary, presidential campaign coverage from a "horse race" focused on winning polls (and cash) to the story of the effect of what each candidate's governance would be on citizens' lives. Certainly, this horse race coverage is important to a certain extent-how well the candidates are doing in the polls and in fundraising is news. However, to make such coverage the central focus of campaign coverage fails the ethical standards journalists set for themselves because the information it gives the public is not very useful for making informed decisions.
Journalism is the making of editorial choices. These choices will have some effect on the way the public views the candidates. If that is so, then the press ought to focus its attention on stories with a high degree of political utility. Fact-checking political advertisements and speeches, and covering issues of character and policy, certainly are steps in the right direction. But I argue the press must also change the protagonist of the political narrative. The press needs to tell a different story-the kind that would allow citizens to make choices based on an assessment of their own interests and values.
The press does cover such stories during political campaigns, but too often these are merely occasional features, added as spice to a stew of campaign contention, fundraising, and poll numbers. Every candidate for president has a record of governance. They may have worked in industry (e.g., Wilkie), the military (e.g., Eisenhower), education (e.g., Wilson) or state government (many)-but they still have made a record. However, stories told from the candidate's point of view tend to remain abstract regarding how governance could work, did work or failed to work.
I am specifically interested in press coverage of the nomination process from the candidates' announcements to the Iowa caucuses. I accept the argument by Barger and Barney (2004, p. 191) that the press has an obligation to "enable citizens, through timely access to information, to accumulate the power necessary...to control their own destinies." I also accept that journalists aspire to act ethically regarding the integrity of their output and the public they serve.
Recent scholarship on the effects of party election reforms in the 1970s demonstrates that the nomination process has stabilized and become a "stacked deck" in favor of a limited set of candidates before any convention votes are cast. The 2008 campaign, already well underway in early 2007 and featuring a much-revised (and earlier) set of primaries, may be different-but it isn't likely. Since the reforms fully took effect in 1980 the winner of the "invisible primary," as determined by polls prior to the convention or any state primary, has won the nomination most of the time. The press, however, covers the entire nomination and election process as an unstable event by creating an illusion of political drama in which almost any candidate may rise from the pack to win the nomination or the frontrunner may stumble on political mistakes and lose the nomination. This illusion of drama hides from citizens the fact that the process is stable and, therefore, limits voters' choices. This hardly helps them "to control their own destinies." By characterizing the process as unstable, I contend, the press contributes to its stability; thus, the press is complicit in limiting voter choice.
Mayer's (1996, 2003a) model demonstrates, with a high degree of predictive success, that nominations are effectively decided before the Iowa caucuses. The model has correctly predicted nine of 11 contested presidential primaries for Republicans and Democrats since 1980. (The anomalies include Gary Hart in 1988 and Howard Dean in 2004.)
This model has two independent variables. First: The candidate must lead in the last Gallup poll before the Iowa caucuses. Second: The candidate must be the most effective fundraiser before the Iowa caucuses.
Mayer draws these conclusions: 1) The current nomination/primary system favors frontrunners; 2) Momentum is an over-rated factor in the process; 3) The frontrunner often stumbles, but these incidents are rarely fatal; 4) The longer we live with this system, the more we learn about it, and this works to the advantage of frontrunners; 5) Money is important, but it is not the whole ball game.
The factors of popularity and fundraising are crucial in the ubiquitous horse race style of political coverage. The news media themselves even pay for much of the polling. Governmentally collected and released fundraising figures offer the press an empirical measure of political legitimacy (at least among contributors). Mayer's model says nothing about how the press covers political campaigns. But my interpretation of his data argues that press coverage in the months prior to the primary election season is critical for a candidate's success even though many Americans do not begin paying close attention to the campaign until after the conventions.
One wonders what information citizens use to make up their minds as reflected in the polls taken during the year preceding the primaries. Is it the kind of information promised in the codes of ethics of professional journalism associations? As journalists themselves complain (Robertson & Papai, 2000), very little press coverage of a political campaign during the pre-election year focuses on the creation, implementation, and critique of policy (Hanson). At this early stage the campaign is a popularity contest based on name recognition and whatever political or personal image already exists in the public mind. Mayer's model demonstrates that the contest ends long before voters hear much about policy.
Journalism operates with a set of informational or structural biases (Bennett, 2001) that determine what journalists understand or "see" in a news situation and how they may relay what they understand to citizens. Narrative is among these-the structuring of news situations into stories using all of the elements of literary story-telling, including a central conflict between protagonists and antagonists. The narrative bias is the tendency of the press to structure issues in terms of stories for the purpose of creating a coherent and causal sense of events. Further, this bias tends to promote the creation of master narratives-set story lines that create a basic understanding of how and why individual candidates act as they do in political situations, and prompts them to see certain types of stories as news and others as not news. Conflict among politicians, especially regarding campaign tactics, is one of the definitions of news in politics.
As in most fiction, the writer won't let the protagonist attain the resolution of the story too easily nor the climax too soon. Hence, the press looks for drama, and often creates drama (in political stories, the illusion of instability), in an otherwise stable system. The drama they seek is human: candidate versus candidate. This search for human drama both reflects and projects that policy analysis is boring and unworthy of serious scrutiny unless it collides with the human drama of political maneuvering.
To portray a stable process as an unstable process does not conform to the facts. But the narrative bias blinds the press to the ethical issue: The stability of the process, which we experience as a predictable, frontloaded process, limits voters' choices. In a plea to journalists to change the way they cover politics in the pre-primary phase of the nomination process, Hanson argued that journalists should avoid typical horse race coverage in favor of covering candidates' policies and characters. In other words, journalists should take a critical look at the structure of journalistic practice.
Fact-checking the candidates' advertisements and speeches was the panacea of the 2004 campaign. Robertson, in American Journalism Review, argues that while news organizations did fact-check the two nominees, this practice should have begun sooner in the process. Keefer, in Columbia Journalism Review, struggled with the concept of journalistic objectivity and how journalists can fact-check-including identifying outright lies-without seeming biased. Such fact-checking finds safe harbor in Jamieson and Waldman's concept of the press as a custodian of facts and Kovach and Rosenstiel's "discipline of verification."
But for a press caught up in the frenzy of the race metaphor, even this commonsense suggestion seems impossible to accomplish. An editorial (p. 8) in the September/October 2004 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review lamented the hectic pace of campaign coverage, 24-hour deadlines, and "a never-ending torrent of digital spin...This system encourages busy reporters-even good ones-to lean on someone else's version of the truth instead of assembling a more complete version of their own."
The horse race metaphor makes it difficult for journalists to see that they could tell a different story with different conflicts and different protagonists-a story that would be far more politically useful to citizens.
What might journalists do in addition to typical political reporting? Here is a suggestion:
Making the people the primary protagonist of political stories during the pre-primary period requires the journalist to do some old fashioned, difficult, time-consuming, shoe-leather-reporting. But it would be of use to the citizen. For example, suppose a candidate proposes a health care plan for children. Typically, this story would be handled in he-said/she-said fashion by comparing that plan to other candidates' plans. But, to make this story more politically useful to the public requires background in the context of governance; tell if such programs have worked in the past and the reasons for success or failure. True, this takes time and money to accomplish at a time when there is so little time and money to do even typical and stereotypical reporting.
What is needed is a complete re-thinking of how journalism covers politics. Our habit of producing political stories as if they were horse races or boxing matches or warfare should be abandoned. Our admittedly scarce precious resources of time and money would be better spent discussing the consequences of each candidate's views and his or her plans for the future...if elected.
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Note: Some AJR and CJR items retrieved from LexisNexis Academic Database. Dates of retrieval of online items available.