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The Abundant Riches of American Political Journalism

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Jurek Martin complained in a recent Financial Times column about the rising poverty of American political journalism, decrying the "crippling reliance on opinion polls", the relentless churn of 24-hour television "news" (good thing he isn't on Twitter...), and the near-obsession in some circles with the 2016 Presidential Election at the expense of reporting on what is actually going on now, why and what it means.

Martin complained, "[I]n the 40-plus years I have been familiar with American political journalism, it has never been as poor as it is today."

All the phenomena that Martin mentioned exist, and they can be annoying. Yes, too often, opinion polls are reported in a mindless fashion. Yes, much of what passes for news on television is superficial and driven by self-promoting pundits ready at hand with pre-packaged opinions and professional outrage. Yes, many political stories speculate about the distant Presidential Election instead of focusing on the monumental challenges at hand in Washington, D.C. and in state and local governments around the country.

But Mr. Martin, you don't have to watch Fox News if you don't like it. You don't need to read premature speculation about 2016. And you don't have to care about what respondents have answered in the most recent poll. Because American political journalism today is not impoverished. It is abundantly rich.

You have so many other options, quality daily news coverage from a number of mainstream news outlets, long-form articles in magazines and online, intelligent satire, a growing number of blogs focusing on minutia of policy, interactive data journalism helping you understand the flow of money in everything from the federal budget to the most recent campaign.

Yes, there is much crap, plenty to provide endless anecdotes to support the that the state of American political journalism today is poor. But there is also much excellent work being done, timely, accurate, multifaceted reporting on what is going on.

I am even tempted to suggest that the best political journalism today is better in some ways -- more contextualized through links, less arrogant and self-satisfied, more conscious that it has been taken for a ride in the past and that many citizens are losing patience with journalism, and have many other ways of spending their time -- than political journalism was in a past when a few newspapers and a few television news programs held a much more dominant position in the American media landscape and political system than any one outlet does today. Was American political journalism really great during the Reagan presidency, for example? In the coverage of the first Gulf War? Some of the best commentators at the time did not think so. It is hard to see when exactly Martin's Golden Age was, and how golden it was.

This doesn't mean contemporary American political journalism doesn't have any weaknesses, flaws, or problems. It has many.

It has well-known problems, many as old as the profession itself. Political journalism remains reliant on a narrow range of pre-approved authoritative sources who mainly represent their own or their institution's self-interest. It struggles with slow-burn issues like poverty, climate change and the transformation of our economy, stories that have few obviously colorful personalities and little overt conflict. It remains insular, more in tune with what is going on inside the Beltway than with Paris, Texas. More interested in Paris, Texas, than in Paris, France. Ordinary Americans and their hopes and problems are rarely featured (except through opinion polls or as anecdotes).

American political journalism also has new problems -- problems I discuss in my new book with Raymond Kuhn, Political Journalism in Transition -- but these problems are not the problems of poverty that Jurek Martin complains about in his frankly back-wards looking and jaundiced piece in the Financial Times.

The new problems are problems of a growing polarization between the information haves and the information have-nots as more and more Americans no longer trust politicians or the journalists who report on them and tune out. They are problems of often harsh cuts in newsrooms, not in the number of reporters covering the White House and the most high-profile partisan and intra-party conflicts, but in a declining number of reporters who write for a general audience about municipal governments, about state-level politics, and about more specialized policy areas like housing, the environment, and defense, where special interests, both public and private, often slug it out in darkness with, but few journalists reporting on what is going on in matters than concern all of us.

These are the problems we should be concerned with -- the risk that political journalism increasingly orients itself towards reporting for the few who follow politics closely, not for the many, the risk that political journalism is reduced to covering a few aspects of the many facets and many layers of modern politics. Complaining that things where much better back in the day will do nothing to address these challenges. Journalists of Martin's generation had their chance, did their job. Now, it is up to a new generation of political journalists to prove that the fundamental mission of their profession can be renewed for a new age under new conditions.