06/02/2011 04:14 pm ET | Updated Aug 02, 2011

How To Cure Modern Campaign Coverage

Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, the editors, jumping off a previous conversation about the "quadrennial issue of how much coverage the press should devote to different presidential candidates," solicit reader thoughts on the matter of "Which ... factors should drive allocation of the media's attention" during a campaign. In the comments, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen offers a lengthy response:

If campaign coverage is supposed to be about... discovering who has "what it takes" (Richard Ben Cramer) to win the nomination and the election... then the narrative is about winning and overcoming odds and the decision rule should be: cover the candidates who are likely to affect the outcome. Ignore those who won't.

Purpose gives you the answer to priorities.

If the campaign narrative is supposed to be... a contest of ideas about the future of the country... and that's what the shapers of the coverage truly believe, then they would be advised to employ a decision rule in which the most compelling, important and consequential ideas are the "stars," no matter which candidates they come from.

If the campaign narrative is really... a cultural ritual through which the American nation acts out its inner conflicts and confronts its meanest and most idealized selves... then coverage should look beyond positioning and positions to the revelation of the American character. The candidates who reveal the most about where America is today thus deserve the most coverage.

Rosen goes on to point readers to his thoughts on "the citizens agenda in campaign coverage":

The idea is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision. So you go out and ask them: "what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year's election?"

This gets pretty close to what my modest proposal for ideal campaign coverage should be. Instead of the current format, in which reporters are dispatched to cover candidates and then return to measure the responses of Americans, reporters should instead be dispatched to cover America and the candidates should be forced into a position where they have to keep coming up with responses to those stories. Journalists should give more coverage to the candidates who make substantive, material attempts to grapple with the issues that their reporting revealed. Those that fail to do so should be continually called out on the matter.

I think that this would return substance and reality to the conversation. It would give actual Americans the chance to "set the narrative" about what's going on in America, rather than allow the narrative to be assembled from the bromides and talking points found in campaign press releases. It would prevent the daily conversation from drowning in opposition research. It would reverse the "access" problem political journalists have, where they have to flatter candidates in order to gain an audience. And it would allow journalists to exercise those long-atrophied muscles of judgment.

I realize that these are all basically anathematic concepts in modern journalism!

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