Stop covering politics as if it’s a game

IT’S OVER! Why can’t political campaigns be more fun? Where’s the drama? Where are the hero’s that enthrall and excite us? Why are we so turned off, tuned out, and not voting?

 The answer is simple. Candidates are mere mortals. They are not superstars. They are not always handsome and charismatic and Nobel laureates. This is not reality TV. But they have the guts to run for public office and subject themselves to scrutiny and ever-increasing cynicism and ridicule. Who in their right mind would do that? And what happens to democracy when they stop?

If candidates deserve to be held accountable, so too must the media whose prism we use to view the process. The media is fixated on the “game” of politics and the “mechanics” of campaigns. Endless stories about polls, fundraising, campaign schedules, endorsements, motives and name-calling dwarf issues like war and peace, housing and healthcare, climate change? Even after this US Senate election, do you really know how candidates differed on Middle East policy, housing, or inflation? But you know it’s been boring and negative.

The truth is covering serious issues is hard work. It’s not about entertainment value. You have to learn something about healthcare or housing or foreign policy. Issues are complicated and nuanced. Polling, fundraising, and name-calling are simpler and sexier. More importantly, the news media advises, viewers and readers won’t tune in to serious issues. They love the game and want to be entertained. Really? Is that what you want?

So, if candidates don’t like this, why do they give in and run nasty campaigns? Here’s the dirty dark secret. Candidates know if they hold a news conference offering their views on serious issues, few if any media outlets will show up. But if they issue a statement calling the other guy an extremist and an empty suit, everyone will cover it. The same is true of debates and paid advertising. It’s Pavlovian. Candidates learn not to waste their time promoting a positive message. The media (and public) want “red meat”…so they deliver. If the news media prized substance, and put it on Page One, (trust me) candidates would deliver that instead.

Now this is clearly a generalization. There are many thoughtful journalists, but they’re swimming against the tide. In this recent US Senate race, too many stories and columns were written decrying the race as boring and candidates as unexciting, until it became the accepted wisdom. Boring compared to what? Reality TV? You had a young, dynamic Republican businessman, a former Navy SEAL, running against an accomplished and experienced Democratic US Congressman with a long record of legislative success. They disagreed on healthcare, abortion rights, gun control, tax policy, Syria. Not enough? Too boring?

In the next few months we will be buried in political campaigns…an open mayoral race, an open US House seat, an open gubernatorial race, and other open Constitutional offices. We can do better covering these races. Why not try the following:

First, Page One stories should be reserved for serious substantive issues, not campaign mechanics.

Second, stories on polling, fundraising, endorsements, schedules, etc. should be treated like sports stats and placed in little boxes in the back of the paper. [Thank you, Bill Kovach.]

Third, reporters should interview real people. How many stories have we read waiting until paragraph six for the first quote? Whose characterization of the race/candidates are we getting? Apparently, the reporter’s. And by the time you get to a quote, it’s from a pundit or professor (it takes one to know one) who has never met the candidates and never been on the campaign trail, but supports the reporter’s premise.

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Fourth, instead of pundits, when covering healthcare or education, for example, why not go to Boston Medical Center’s emergency room at 3 a.m. and see who is or isn’t being served…or visit a third grade class in Lowell and see if it is really overcrowded. Then write about the candidate’s positions keeping this information in mind.

The point is the media needs to stop covering politics as if it’s a “game”. It’s not. It’s great if a candidate can be inspiring. But there are serious issues at stake, and real differences between the candidates. It’s more important we’re clear that candidates say what they mean and mean what they say on important issues. How about that for a new standard?  Just maybe we’ll all survive the next round.

George Bachrach, the president of the Environmental League of Mass and a former state senator, has taught political journalism at Boston University.