February 21, 2024

The missing piece of this story is the American media, which has been persuaded by well-meaning critics to look away from the democratic drama of horse race politics — and to buy into Donald Trump’s campaign strategy of pretending there’s no primary.

I should know, both as a semi-reformed hack political reporter, an editor, and as one of those critics. I wrote a sententious piece in 2018 headlined, “I Helped Create Insider Political Journalism. Now It’s Time For It To Go Away.” The piece reflected the consensus of the moment among people from me to NBC’s Chuck Todd, and also reflected the desires of an audience that was bored and repelled “by tactical, amoral, insidery, and mostly male-dominated political reporting.”

We had a point, of course. But nothing is ever quite that simple. The drama or personality and competition has always been part of the pageant of democracy. And we’re now watching what happens when the media looks past the primary process to the likely high-stakes confrontation between Trump and Biden, the consequences for American democracy, the sweep of history — and allows Trump’s mundane signs of political weakness (skipping debates, barely campaigning, and pretending rivals don’t exists) to be seen as strengths.

This of course doesn’t mean ignoring the stakes, or dialing back coverage of the big policy questions, up to and including respect for the electoral process and likely centering on abortion.

But these things are bound together. Haley is the only national Republican figure who has found a way to talk about abortion that doesn’t immediately cost her a popular majority. That’s part of why she’s beating Joe Biden by 17 points in a recent Wall Street Journal poll. And Haley’s general election strength is a great pitch to Republican covers — and could have been the biggest story in every publication in the country.

And that kind of hacky, poll-driven coverage moves donors, voters, and endorsers. It’s part of the fabric of a dynamic democracy. We may not need fewer articles about the dangers to democracy, but we also need more stories like Paul Steinhauser’s recent Fox News article asking, “Are Trump’s expectations too high in Iowa’s Jan. 15 caucuses?”

This doesn’t mean ignoring the political realities: One reason Haley’s pitch to voters that she’s electable has made little impact is a wave of polls showing Trump beating Biden in key states.

But I’m not sure journalists’ posture above such horse race nonsense has improved American democracy. And political journalists, of all people, should resist feeling comfortable in the unearned complacency about Trump’s inevitability, and too gloomy about the fate of democracy to cover its messy process.

In fact, most experienced political journalists will tell you with regret about having made this kind of mistake in the past. Mine came in 2009, when billionaire New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg persuaded the press to ignore his challenger, a capable Brooklyn pol named Bill Thompson. We complied, and were shocked when Bloomberg barely scraped by. We realized Thompson would likely have won if we’d covered the race with balance.

I don’t want to make that mistake again. And sometimes democracy requires writing about politics.

So: Two cheers for hacky political reporting! Cover the primary!