Dear national media: This is how I would do 2020
Maybe this column will only prove I shouldn’t run a national newsroom, but, as we head into the 2020 campaign in earnest, here’s how I would direct my team if I helmed one of the major paper’s political desks:
GET INTO THE HEARTLAND
The national media does more of this than they get credit for, but they need to do more of it so they get credit.
By now, I would have already embedded reporters in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. I’d have them talk not to political operatives but to factory workers, hotel desk clerks, waitresses, car wash managers, regular folk, asking them what issues they care about and why. Then I’d ask those reporters to file dispatch after dispatch about what’s really going on in America and how the various candidates’ positions and proposals would affect those issues.
AVOID THE HORSE RACE
Meanwhile, I’d spend a lot less ink on stories about who’s raising more money or who’s ahead in the polls. The twin failures of 2012 and 2016 showed polls nowadays are often way off the mark, anyway, so no one other than Nate Silver ought to be spending a lot of time on them.
Campaign contributions need to be reported, but the focus ought to be on naming donors and pointing out potential conflicts of interest or influence-buying, not who has more money in the bank.
All that stuff only distracts from the issues, and the only people interested are the political operatives and money men who were probably sources for the stories in the first place.
AVOID THE TALKING HEADS AND UNNAMED SOURCES
TV news is more guilty of this than print media, but I would scrap most pundits and other talking heads. Those incessant scenes of a bunch of paid pols sitting around a table yelling at each other or massaging each other’s egos are about as informative as those “When Animals Attack” specials that used to run on Fox all the time back in the 90s.
Replace punditry with deep-dive looks at American towns and their people or actually hard-hitting interviews with candidates or their surrogates.
Print journalists, meanwhile, are far more guilty than their TV peers of using unnamed sources. It’s become so embedded in the Washington culture that it’d be a hard thing to change, but journalists have to stop letting sources speak anonymously for stories about campaign infighting, political maneuvering, palace intrigue, and other mini-scandals that ultimately have very little effect on the outcome of a race or a candidate’s fitness for office.
Unnamed sources may be the only way to get some of those stories, but the tradeoff is a lack of trust in the media and an easier way for a candidate to call a reporter a liar.
In the cost-benefit analysis, the only times anonymous sources are worth it are on matters of national security or to prove a candidate is knowingly misleading the public about his or her policies.
I had a seventh-grade math teacher who drilled into us kids the importance of integrity. He said there are very few truly white lies. If people can’t trust you to be truthful about the little stuff, he’d tell us, how can they trust you on the big stuff?
The same is true of politicians.
Media outlets hired hordes of fact-checkers for 2016, and they’re sure to be in the trenches for 2020. Good. Every candidate’s policy statements and supposed justifications should be picked down to the bone and shown for what they are.
And, by the way, those fact-checkers should stay on staff for 2024, 2028, 2032, and beyond.
Not necessarily good examples for political newspaper reporters to emulate, because newspapers are a different medium, but these are some of my favorite books on politics and campaiagning:
∫ “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” by Hunter S. Thompson (parental advisory: explicit language and drug use)
∫ “This Town,” by Mark Leibovich
∫ “Deadlines Past,” by Walter Mears
∫ “Miami and the Seige of Chicago,” by Norman Mailer
∫ “The Price of Politics,” Bob Woodward’s expose on the budget debates between Barack Obama, John Boehner, and Paul Ryan, which is not about campaigning but is a horror story about what happens when politics get in the way of good policy
∫ “The Final Days,” Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s behind-the scenes look at the end of the Richard Nixon presidency, which, again, is not about campaigning, but shows what may be the last time politicians truly put country first.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.