There are two questions, related but not identical, concerning presidential campaign coverage: 1) Why is coverage not smarter and more substantive? and 2) Why is the Romney communications effort so ineffective?
As to the first, to paraphrase “Sunset Boulevard,” it is the coverage that has gotten small. Small-minded, process-obsessed and snarky. My colleague Ruth Marcus rightly complains about the media’s gaffe-addiction. Of the factors she lists, I think “intellectual laziness” in the media corps (“how much easier to critique a candidate’s gaffe than to dissect his tax plan”) is the most pervasive and serious issue.
What do reporters know? Not much about foreign policy, we learned this week. And how can they cover what they have little understanding of or interest in?
Ever watch or read business news? It is a whole lot smarter than political coverage because the people writing, editing and speaking about the business world have more substantive background in what they are covering than the average campaign reporter. Why is SCOTUSblog smarter than CNN on the Supreme Court? There are real appellate lawyers with no ax to grind at the former.
You can blame juvenile reporters on the campaign trail, but they have supposedly wiser, more experienced editors (or they should) who have a larger responsibility to do more than ape online news outlets that are all about collecting clicks with amped-up headlines. And to the extent they are demanding their reporters cover the same gaffe-invention story of the day (Hey, Politico is covering it, why not you?), those supposedly more experienced news people are contributing to the problem.
This is why the media get “outsourcing” wrong and are clueless about the culture-economy connection. It is why there is so much discussion of how a new policy will affect the president’s political standing and so little about the substance of the policy. (Did any major outlet do an analysis of how Obama’s change in immigration policy would work? How it would be enforced? How many people would be affected?)
If the economics of journalism are such that respectable news outlets are hiring know-nothings to cover the presidential race, at least team them up with those who have some policy background. Or something. Political news coverage is bad and getting worse from a quality-control stand point.
Now, even if one accepts all that as true, there is little excuse for how badly the Romney campaign deals with the media this late in the race. The Romney team should have learned from one or more prior incidents how much explaining has to be done and how much engagement with the media is required to get the facts straight, especially on complex issues. Yes, the media should do this on their own, but they can’t or won’t, so it is incumbent on a campaign that wants to win to be accessible, fast and up to speed on what its candidate is doing and saying.
The “message of the day” lasts about 10 minutes in the current media environment, and then you have to go off script to deal with whatever pops up, whether provoked by the candidate or the media or the oppo team from the other side. Therefore, the campaign has to put out knowledgable advisers promptly and give the media access to them. Staffers in communications positions have to do more than simply recite the script of the day.
One senses the Romney team is perpetually amazed and disgusted that the media don’t get it “right.” Welcome to the 21st-century media, guys. And the pack journalism mentality, amped up via Twitter, just makes it worse. That means the campaigns have to be better and faster before the coverage leaps from reality into a morass of confusion and error.
I haven’t once mentioned media bias or favoritism toward the left. This is because it is a fact of life for conservatives. They swim in rougher waters than do liberals, and they will, even if they do everything “right,” often be on the side of unbalanced coverage. Liberal reporters will intuitively understand and be more sympathetic to the arguments advanced by the left. They extend the benefit of the doubt to one side and not the other. But that is a given, and only makes it all the more necessary for Republican candidates and administrations to be more agile and hands-on with the media.
The Romney team may have concluded that none of this matters and that the only thing voters need to know is how high the unemployment rate is. But, really, why should it not do a better job on such a critical aspect of the campaign? And more to the point, if Mitt Romney wins, how is the Romney operation going to govern unless it can explain what the administration is saying and doing?