Scoring the Idea Race
Rosen, Jay, The Nation
From Iowa and New Hampshire comes sad news about the press: It is still addicted to the horse race, a nasty drug. With "who's ahead?" remaining the master narrative, we press critics need to face facts. For years we have joined in post-election seminars where journalists worried aloud about their fascination with "process" at the expense of "substance." To me, these regrets seem deeply felt. But the horse race runs deeper; it is a metaphor with tenacious roots. Some of the best press criticism in years has attacked the thing but it holds firm.
Time, then, for a different approach. On behalf of those who still hope for some content in politics, we say this to the press:
"You win. Politics is a horse race, especially at election time. So tell us who's ahead, but in the contest of ideas - in the march to intelligibility that the voters need these candidates to make. Trail them around and ask provocative questions. But what you'll be asking for is their views on everything important to us, and we have a large agenda. Be skeptical, tough. Keep in mind, however, that we need to benefit from your toughness. Even in the media age, politics belongs to us as citizens. It's our campaign."
What would it mean for a citizen to have "perfect" information about the contenders and their views? Everything a candidate has to say and proposes to do about every issue that matters - this, let us say, is perfect information. Any movement toward this utopian state is progress in the "race" to complete a Candidate's Public Profile.
The C.P.P. is the public's file on the guy - or gal. It's "complete" when it includes everything a citizen needs to know - and deliberate about - before casting an intelligent vote. A completed public profile is how a candidate appears when his or her politics have been made perfectly clear to us, when he or she comes sharply into view as a political "figure" against the background of our deepest concerns.
Remember, this is a concept, an alternative conceit, intended to redirect the horse-race narrative so that it writes a more public story, one that is less a product of money, manipulation and the obsessions of journalists. The C.P.P. thus becomes the aim of serious reporting: what journalists are trying to do, first and well. They race to get their candidates' C.P.P.s "up and running" (in the online sense) because the quicker they sketch a usable profile, the quicker they can start deepening it.
As the profiles get redrawn each week, the candidates' movement from vague outline to discernible "figure" drives the story onward. Journalists compete to make the campaign address public concerns. They practice a kind of civic aggression, forcing the candidates' "story" and our own to meet.
This can work only if journalists know which issues matter - to us. The themes at play in the media campaign are often not the ones we want aired. What results is a big reporting challenge: Inquire of the relevant political public what people expect the candidates to address. Again, it's our campaign. To our reasonable expectations the press can add its own judgment, since issues that aren't on the public's radar screen may yet be important. …