Opinion writer

The mainstream media have not covered themselves in glory in the early stages of the 2020 presidential campaign. Let’s use a simple example to illustrate an all-too-familiar pattern:

Candidate Sue has no record of illegality or stain of corruption in her years in public life. She announces she is running for president. A breathless “exclusive” story appears: Sue would taste grapes in the supermarket before buying them, insiders say. The story is filled with sources on background attesting to the horror of grape-sampling. “She was warned to stop, you know,” says someone not authorized to speak on the record. Other sources on Capitol Hill, all on background, attest to her grape-tasting. A political scientist from some university opines, “Grape-swiping could be a problem. Now everything comes under scrutiny.” A political consultant (backing another candidate) is quoted as saying, “Sue was foolish not to think the grape-swiping would come out.” Within 24 hours, most mainstream outlets report: Sue swept up in grape scandal. Panels are assembled on cable TV to discuss just how serious the grape scandal is. Supermarket and grape experts become household names. Then, an esteemed political reporter tells us: Grapes threaten to crush Sue’s campaign. When Sue talks about issues, she is trying to distract from “Grapegate.” When she refuses to answer grape questions, she is accused of hiding from the media. No real voters cares about grape-sampling, but that is literally all they can watch and read about Sue. They never really learn if she is a good, bad or indifferent candidate.

This scenario is not nearly as far-fetched as it should be. (I actually had trouble coming up with a fictional example that in the era of grape-swiping coverage would be generally recognized as ridiculous.) The fixation on the inane and irrelevant story takes the media and the voters into a hall of mirrors where grape-stealing becomes the measure of a candidate rather than her understanding of the issues, life accomplishments and skill set.

We are not talking about instances of egregious racism or alleged violence or other serious conduct. Differentiating the serious from the nonserious events can be a challenge given the competitive pressures. News consumers and the media alike might develop an eight-part test to determine whether coverage has gone off the rails:

  • When did the conduct occur?
  • Was this a felony or an act of moral turpitude?
  • Did the candidate harm anyone?
  • At the time, was the conduct widely regarded as serious and wrong?
  • Does the conduct reveal some deep, important aspect of the person’s character, including racist and misogynistic views?
  • Is it evidence of massive hypocrisy?
  • Did the candidate lie about it or demonstrate poor judgment when first asked about the issue?
  • If it were not a politician (e.g., a friend or colleague) at issue, would you be upset, outraged or stunned?

Other criteria probably can be used. The objective here is to instill some sense of proportion (horrors!) and common sense in coverage so as to make voters smarter, not dumber, about the ballot choices they have. The original action might or might not deserve a single report; the elevation of inconsequential, non-scandals to the exclusion of important issues and serious biographical question is what threatens to make us all dumber. (The same can be said of silly gaffes, repeated over and over again to the exclusion of other coverage — President George H.W. Bush’s reaction to a supermarket scanner, which actually was misreported.)

Unless and until news editors, producers and journalists start exercising some discretion — actual news judgment — our campaigns will be determined by silly non-scandals, not substantive issues, or full evaluations of the candidates’ character and abilities. When campaigns and coverage of them become idiotic, faith in democracy suffers and we wind up with candidates whose major flaws were ignored because the media was fixated on grape stealing.

Read more:

Katrina vanden Heuvel: We cannot afford more media malpractice

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The media’s bias should be toward democracy

Gary Abernathy: BuzzFeed’s travails highlight the self-destructive habits of modern journalism

Margaret Sullivan: Campaign journalism needs an overhaul. Here’s one radical idea.