As the presidential campaign heads into the frantic final months, more and more Beltway reporters and pundits appear united in their complaint that the Obama vs. Romney contest has been a "joyless" affair. It's been so joyless -- so lacking in entertainment value -- that journalists can't wait for the campaign to be over. In the meantime, they hate their jobs.
Even for the political press corps, which tends to complain ever four years that covering campaigns is an awful, dreary task, the volume of woeful laments this year is noteworthy. ("How am I ever going to get through it?")
The complaints are also a bit baffling, though.
The idea that presidential referendums, which decide the political direction of the country every four years, are supposed to entertain journalists seems like a misguided take on the democratic process. And the fact that reporters and pundits openly complain that a White House race isn't interesting enough for them seems to highlight the outsized importance they place on their role in the electoral process. (What happened to just reporting the news?)
Note that a key complaint that runs through the media laments has been that the press, aside from being unable to detect any "joy" from the candidates, can't find any substance to cover; that they're forced to focus on the trivial pursuits of allegedly shallow, nasty campaigns. After Paul Ryan was selected as the Republican vice presidential pick, the press insisted it was desperate to cover substance and that Ryan was the vehicle to finally elevate the campaign. (He did not.)
Weeks later, pundits are still complaining about the lack of substance and insisting there's nothing they can do about it.
In fact, there is.
The New York Times Magazine's Mark Leibovich profiles Politico's Mike Allen, touting his -- and Politico's -- success in driving the daily conversation among the political and journalism elite. Leibovich paints a rich portrait of Allen's thoughtful gestures toward friends and sources and his hyperkinetic workaholic tendencies. But in more than 8,000 words, he devotes little more than passing attention to questions about the quality of Politico's journalism. Tellingly, Leibovich doesn't quote or refer to a single media critic or journalism professor -- his entire portrait of Politco appears to be based on his own observations and conversations with political operatives and reporters. It is a piece about the author of Politico's "Playbook," written by a self-described member of the Playbook "community," and reliant entirely upon interviews with other members of that "community."
An astonishing 6,585 words into the profile, Leibovich finally raises a key question:
Harris and VandeHei have clearly succeeded in driving the conversation, although the more complicated question is exactly where they are driving it.
But Leibovich doesn't linger long on that question -- and hardly applies it to Allen, the subject of the profile, at all. If Leibovich is right about how influential Mike Allen and his Playbook are in setting the agenda in the nation's capital (and I'm not prepared to argue against that premise), Leibovich's decision not to explore this question is a glaring omission. Leibovich writes that the Playbook is "the cheat sheet of record for a time-starved city," but pays no attention the question of whether it should be -- whether, for example, Allen compiles and writes his Playbook in a way that points its Very Important Readers toward thoughtful analysis of important policy questions and ground-breaking investigative pieces, or toward horse-race journalism, dime-store political analysis, and gossip.
From the September 17 edition MSNBC's Morning Joe:
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On MSNBC Live, David Shuster said that President-elect Barack Obama and his staff decided "repeatedly" to "release virtually no information about the Blagojevich scandal," while Mark Leibovich said that Obama's responses to questions about the scandal "hearken to a kind of echo of what other White Houses in the past have said when they don't want to answer questions immediately." However, neither noted that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald reportedly requested that Obama "delay the release of a report" about an internal review of the contacts between his aides and Blagojevich's office.
The New York Times' Mark Leibovich reported that Sen. Joe Lieberman "has not ruled out switching parties but has stopped short of saying he has moved so far from the Democratic Party -- or, in his view, the other way around -- that he is at a point of no return" but failed to note that if Lieberman did so, he would be breaking his 2006 promise to caucus with the Democrats if re-elected to the Senate.
The New York Times' Mark Leibovich asserted that the "conventional wisdom" that Sen. John McCain would be "done in by immigration in the Republican primaries" in 2008 "Proved to Be False." But Leibovich did not mention that McCain may have avoided being "done in" by the immigration issue by reversing his position to align himself with the Republican base.