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From AJR,   October/November 2011  issue

Stepping Back   

Even in—or maybe particularly in—our rapid-fire news environment, there are times when it’s important for journalists and audiences alike to take the long view. Tues. August 30, 2011


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

The world of national political coverage can be a peculiar one.

It's a world where the votes of 16,892 Iowans 15 months before the election can dramatically reshape the Republican presidential field.

It's a world where Michele Bachmann, who, according to the Los Angeles Times, had been hoping for more than 6,000 votes, can be declared the winner of a significant victory when she tops the field with just 4,823.

It's a world where Ron Paul, the indefatigable libertarian, can receive 4,671 votes – only 152 fewer than media darling Bachmann – and remain in the chopped liver department.

It's also a world that has been turned upside down by technology. As Jodi Enda portrays in her excellent story "Campaign Coverage in the Time of Twitter," the pace of reporting on campaign happenings has been speeded up exponentially. The main reason for that, the scribes agree, is Twitter. Journalists and campaigns alike are making ample use of the microblogging service, which makes it much easier to keep on top of things, minute by minute. Match the Twitterverse with the blogosphere and the hungry maw that is cable news, not to mention a culture that cares profoundly about "winning the cycle," and you've got a news world that never sleeps.

Some of this is good, of course: You can instantly find out what's going on, often from a wide variety of sources. The risk is that in the race to stay on top of it all, there's little time for reflection, for context, for serious, in-depth reporting. "We're much more likely this cycle to have covered in detail the medication Michele Bachmann takes for her headaches than the policy ideas that are coming out of her mouth," USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page told Enda. "One is easy to understand, interesting, likely to get a lot of hits. Policy issues are harder, difficult to make sexy.

Of course, journalists have long been criticized for paying too much attention to the horse race and not enough to the serious stuff. And there's nothing wrong with reporting on the kerfuffles that become the flavor of the day. If Bachmann has serious migraine issues, it's important for people to know that. Bursts of coverage of Mitt Romney saying "corporations are people" or Barack Obama talking during the last campaign about "bitter" people who "cling to guns or religion" tell us something about the candidates.

The problem is one of proportion. There's no doubt that the Anthony Weiner scandal was a big story. But did it really need to occupy 17 percent of America's newshole one week, beating out the nation's economic woes and tumult in the Middle East as the No. 1 story, as it did in June?

An even more serious challenge for our news outlets is to make sure the frantic chase of the latest and the sexiest doesn't overwhelm the need for thoughtful examination of the candidates and the issues.

It goes without saying that every presidential election is important. But the 2012 showdown is coming at a particularly portentous time. The country is mired in a stubborn recession. Joblessness and the deficit are intractable problems. Many people are pessimistic about their futures, and the country's, with good reason. The political system is toxic. Partisanship is off the charts. And the Republican Party is completely dominated by people with views that not so long ago would have been considered out of the mainstream.

Under such circumstances, it's more important than ever that the candidates be subjected to serious scrutiny. Not just their latest gaffes, but their characters, their records, their policies. Just how effective has Rick Perry been as governor of Texas? What about Michele Bachmann the legislator? How has Mitt Romney done as a job creator, and what about the notion that he's a world-class flip-flopper?

Then there's Barack Obama. He's been before our eyes so much it's hard to think there is much we don't know about him. But his has been a turbulent tenure, and under such circumstances distance can play a powerful role when it comes to accurately assessing performance. And what of Obama's leadership style? He can be such an inspirational orator, and yet he can also seem passive and remote, unable to make the Clintonesque connection with ordinary people.

In a world that moves so quickly, it's easy to quickly assign a topic or development to the dustbin of history. As someone who compulsively consumes news at all hours on the computer and on the iPhone, I know firsthand how that happens. When I've read several versions of a story the day before, yet another take on the front page of the newspaper – or "today's vinyl," as some like to say – can seem pretty tired.

But often the extra time – hours, days, weeks – is essential to get to the truth. It's crucial for journalists and their audiences to keep that in mind.