What Makes a Political Campaign Important?

Alec MacGillis is the latest journalist to take up the great cause of our time: Putting an end to the media’s practice of printing whatever lies and half-truths are uttered by political campaigns. Most recently, MacGillis excorciated Aaron Blake of the Washington Post for saying some of the Romney campaign’s blatantly false attacks inhabit an area that’s too gray for them to be called lies.

Ah yes. If only there was someone whose job and calling it was to ferret out the truth of such things, to provide some context for voters. Let me think, there must be someone we can think of, a profession of some kind perhaps, sort of like a researcher but also a communicator…

Ultimately, I think the way you see the issue comes down to whether you believe a campaign is worthy of coverage because it’s important in its own right, or whether a campaign is only important in that it’s a lens through which we learn truths about policy, future leadership, and other things that are objectively important. The former view sees a campaigns like the Oscars — anything that anybody does, says, or wears is important because we’ve decided it’s important. The latter view, which is the view MacGillis holds, sees the campaign like a meeting of the Federal Reserve Board — everything is trivial except what we learn about the state of the world and the future of domestic economic policy.

Twenty years ago, before each campaign needed to produce new talking points every 24 hours, these two views were functionally somewhat similar. Covering the campaign involved detailed reporting on actual candidate positions and what their campaigns meant for future policy. There weren’t spare resources to waste on analyzing attack ads. But in the last few years cable news and the professionalization of political communications has been a boon for campaign coverage. Now a seemingly original piece of news or analysis can be written every day.

The problem is that most of these pieces only have value if you adhere to the first view that anything campaign related is important. Although much of the Washington press corps shares that view, 99% of the country does not. Most voters don’t care what tactics candidates are using. They just want to know what the president intends to do.

This why I think MacGillis’ view is 100% right, and those who disagree tend to be engaged in some cognitive dissonance gymnastics in order to avoid realizing that most of their work has no value. The problem for MacGillis is that his drive to change the way of doing things can only be successful if the media’s goal is to educate the public about what they need to know, not to make money or validate the self-importance of beltway pundits. As I’ve written before, I think this assumption is unlikely to be true, and thus MacGillis’ efforts are ultimately doomed, at least with regard to the current election cycle.


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