July 30, 2013

Ezra Klein has a very smart post out today in which he identifies a major media bias in policy coverage: The press ignores policy proposals unless they have a chance of being enacted into law, which means that successful opposition not only defeats the proposal, but (if it’s successful enough, and anticipated enough by smart reporters) makes the proposal disappear from public discussion altogether.

John Boehner and Eric Cantor (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
House Speaker John Boehner, left, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

That’s exactly right. If policy proposals have no chance to become law, they are at best relegated to the specialized press. Which means that reporters, editors and producers are applying, in Klein’s terms, a political test rather than a policy test in determining whether something is worth covering.

I’ll partially defend editors on this one.

The thing is, there are always lots and lots of policy proposals out there. Some are backed by a president; some by committee chairs or the congressional party leadership; some by lone members of Congress; some by outside organized interests; some by parties; some by neutral experts. Some by cranks.

It’s perfectly reasonable for the political context to be a central part of the decision of what policy stories to cover. In particular, there’s nothing at all wrong with the press covering proposals which have a decent chance of being enacted far more than they cover others. It’s also fine for the press to take cues from party leaders (presidents, leading presidential candidates, congressional leadership, committee chairs) about what to cover; after all, those people represent the political parties, which in turn represent voters. That’s true even if their proposals are “bad ideas” — if Marco Rubio or Hillary Clinton is running on bad ideas in 2016, I want to know that! After all, if they win, those bad ideas might become policy.

So political context should be part of what determines which policy proposals are covered, but it shouldn’t only be those which have a good chance of turning into law. That’s one legitimate political-context test, but it shouldn’t be the only one. Indeed, leading proposals from both major parties deserve serious coverage; so, perhaps, do proposals from important organized interests.

The more legitimate complaint is that once a policy proposal is judged important enough to cover, it should then be covered at least in large part as policy. Far too often, coverage begins and ends with the chances of a bill becoming law — or, even worse, the effects of passage or failure on future elections. Of course, Klein and his Wonkblog are terrific at covering policy-as-policy, but that’s still far too rare in the general press.

So absolutely: more policy coverage, which also means more implementation coverage, and not just treating policy as a question of what passes Congress. And sure, whether something will pass or not shouldn’t be the only thing driving policy coverage decisions. But, yes, political context is a fully legitimate part of those decisions.