Political Coverage: More Than Keeping Score

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), August 19, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Political Coverage: More Than Keeping Score


Byline: Jim Slusher

The race is on for president. Would that it were otherwise - not because the campaigning has become so intense more than a year before the election.

Because the campaigning already has become a race.

In fact, in journalism parlance, we talk often about covering the horse race - "And, they're off in Iowa. George W. Bush, the best-fed mount in the field, jumps out to a commanding early lead. Steve Forbes stumbles out of the gate, spilling cash across the track. Dan Quayle and Lamar Alexander, both emaciated, appear to be left out of the picture from the start."

Supposedly, we don't want to cover presidential politics - or any politics - this way, but form can dominate substance, especially early in the campaign.

So, on a slow weekend for news, the nation's eyes turned last Saturday to a carnival grounds in the Hawkeye State, where 24,000 mostly bused-in Iowans began winnowing out for the nation the crowded early field of Republican presidential candidates.

Set aside for the moment the question of whether this is a good idea. Instead, take this opportunity to reflect on how it is covered.

I suspect that the most many people know about George W. Bush is that he is the son of an ex-president and his campaign is engorged with money. Most people probably know little more about Steve Forbes than that he is a publisher, personally engorged with money. Dan Quayle is the butt of spelling jokes, Elizabeth Dole is the wife of Bob, and who but the most devoted pol-watcher knows anything about Lamar Alexander, Alan Keyes or Gary Bauer?

I would like to think that at some point, we will get to know more about the candidates than this. But I do know that reaching that point will require a concerted effort both on our part as a newspaper and on yours as a voter.

The challenge for the Daily Herald is in finding a way to concentrate coverage on more than polls and money. It is not easy.

First, the candidates themselves tend to organize their campaigns around the sound bites and moving pictures that work better for television than does the substance of their qualifications. National media tend toward coverage that appeals to a huge audience. It is easier to keep score than to parse issues, and the public we all court does seem to take more readily to the exciting language of sports, which everyone understands, than to the language of politics, which can be dull and arcane.

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