Trapped By “Joyless” Campaign, Journalists Should Go Back To Basics

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.

One of the two candidates running for president this year has adopted an unprecedented campaign approach in which he refuses to detail his agenda for governing. One candidate this year has often refused to specify which policies he's in favor of, and which ones he would enact if elected president.

That is a likely reason why the current contest lacks substance, because Mitt Romney has purposefully refused to discuss the substance of his campaign. (Aides consider it “suicidal.”)  Shielding a candidate from the news media during a White House campaign has become an unfortunate reality in politics today. But shielding a candidate's agenda from the news media? That's unheard of.

Yet the press, for the most part, has given Romney a pass. (See here and here for key exceptions.) The press has allowed the Republican candidate to run a campaign that is purposefully void of substance, while the same press corps blames both sides for a White House contest that lacks substance.

For instance, when Romney appeared on CBS This Morning last month, interviewers declined to press Romney on how he would replace Wall Street regulations he has said should be eliminated. Romney has given no specifics on what new financial regulations would look like in his administration.

And when the Romney/Ryan ticket began a summer bus tour to tout its “plan” to help the middle class, the press often brushed aside the fact that the “plan” Republicans have revealed to help the middle class was a vague campaign document.

I'm not sure how the media can gather around for a hand-wringing exercise in which journalists claim they're powerless to change the shape of substance-free campaigns if they essentially allow one of the two major candidates to run a substance-free campaign.