The Washington Post

In defense of political reporting

On Sunday, the Washington Post's Ombudsman Pat Pexton penned a piece entitled "The Post needs less on politics, more on government."

Pexton writes in the piece that the Post ignores coverage of federal agencies to focus on the political horserace. Here's the nub of Pexton's critique:

"One of the problems of American journalism broadly is that stories about government have retreated while stories on politics and personality have skyrocketed. Washington coverage increasingly means just the White House, Congress and all politics all the time: the polls, the gaffes, who’s up, who’s down, who’s raising the most money. This coverage increases the banality of U.S. politics, where issues are never discussed beyond sound bites."

Let's start with where we agree with Pexton. There's no doubt that the various federal agencies around town are filled with great stories of interest to the massive number of federal workers who live in and around Washington. And it's also inarguable that with cutbacks that have hit the Post -- as well as every other media organization in the country -- many of these stories get missed due simply to a lack of manpower.

But, at the Post lots of them don't get missed too -- thanks to the work of the people like Al Kamen, who is the Oracle at Delphi of federal government reporting, as well as the Federal Eye blog and the good work done by Joe Davidson and others.

Our bigger problem with Pexton's piece, however, is his seeming attempt to separate "government" from "politics".

As anyone who has spent time covering Congress, the White House, federal agencies or political campaigns knows, it is impossible to separate policy from politics. The two, literally, go hand in hand.

Why did Bill Clinton pursue welfare reform in the mid-1990s? To strengthen his hand among independent voters in his 1996 re-election race. Why did then candidate Barack Obama never mention gun control during his 2008 campaign? To try to keep rural voters in play or at least less antagonistic. Why didn't House Republicans allow a vote late in 2012 on a plan that would have raised taxes on those making $1 million or more a year? To protect themselves from future primary challenges from their ideological right.

All policy decisions -- all of them -- are tinged (and often more than tinged) with politics. The best politicians are the ones who can exist at the intersection of policy AND politics, who can understand the give and take between the two and who get how, under the right circumstances, the two can work together to great effect.

Even more than misunderstanding that crucial intersection of politics and policy, however, Pexton's piece seems to be dismissive of "personality" coverage in political reporting.

At the core of what makes politics -- whether it's in the White House or at the Department of Agriculture -- work (or not work) are relationships. (Sit in the House or Senate press gallery for even a single day and you will quickly grasp this reality.)

Politicians are -- gasp! -- human beings too and, as such, are driven to action or inaction by the same things we all are: Their own personal experiences and their relationships with their co-workers.

Exploring those relationships -- and the personalities behind them -- then is the sine qua non of understanding the men and women we elect to lead us.  Doubt it? Ask yourself whether the collapse of the quasi-friendship between President Obama and John Boehner over the past 18 months will or won't have an impact on the coming debt ceiling debate. The answer, of course, is it will.

Political reporters -- and the way in which we cover the people who populate the political landscape -- are easy targets for criticism. Yes, we all make mistakes in how much time we dedicate to certain types of stories and, in the process, miss other scoops that would provide real value to our readers.

But as someone who has spent my entire professional career working in newsrooms -- and the bulk of that time working at the Post -- I can tell you that the main goal of the political journalism we do is to bring the fullest picture of who the men and women who run this country are to the people who elect them.

And, yes, that means covering the politics of policy and the personalities of the politicians at the highest levels of power. Which is exactly as it should be.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.



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Aaron Blake · January 8, 2013

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