Today’s “The Diane Rehm Show,” guest-hosted by Tom Gjelten, dug into the premier media-commentary topic of the year: fact-checking. Deep into the program (see the 30-minute mark), Gjelten posed this question to Jim VandeHei, the executive editor of Politico:
Some political reporters seem almost unconcerned with the accuracy of what . . . politicians say and instead cover the campaigns as though they were sporting events. Who is scoring points? Who is not scoring points? What works, what doesn’t? To me, it suggests almost kind of a cynical approach to political reporting, where you really don’t pay any attention to issues or accuracy. It’s just who’s up, who’s down.
VandeHei sounded ready for this one:
Well, if you read Politico, then you’d have to say we’re quite cynical because we do a tremendous amount of coverage of the horse race. And proudly do it, love it. I think it’s really important. I think any good news organization, any good reporter — you have to do both. You have to understand the personalities, you have to understand the politics to understand the policies, to understand the motivations, to understand the rhetoric. So what great journalism does is it combines all of those things: rich reporting, both on the policies, the fact-checking side, but also like, why are these people doing the things that they do? What animates them? Where are they having success? What techniques are working? And again, it’s really important whenever I talk about Politico to understand, we don’t pretend to be the New York Times — we’re not out there trying to serve a broad-based audience. We’re proud that we have a broad-based audience, but our audience tends to be — our core audience — extremely sophisticated about politics and have a very high level of expectations for our expertise on politics, on governance, and on policy. So that’s the audience that we’re speaking to, but I think most political writers at different publications, they do get into the horse race. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. . . . I think it’s fine, I think it’s interesting, I think it’s important. And I think I get really nervous when I hear the monks of journalism say, ‘Well, we should just cover the facts and just cover the most serious policy issues.’ You’re going to have nine readers.
Let’s break down VandeHei’s defense of horse-race journalism:
It’s fine: Okay, but a lot of things are fine.
It’s interesting: This assessment circles back to what VandeHei was saying about his audience. For political junkies, perhaps horse-race coverage is interesting. But please, media, do not generate another Romney-needs-to-do-this-and-that story. I’ve reached my limit.
It’s important: Perhaps, if it’s correct and prophetic. Right now the top story on Politico.com is a piece titled “Denver debate do-or-die for Mitt Romney.” The nut graph reads like this:
Republicans, fretting about dwindling days for Romney to turn around his campaign, fear that if their nominee doesn’t come away with a decisive first-debate victory, he’ll continue to spiral downward and lose his last, best shot for a comeback.
Fine, interesting and important?