May 28, 2002

How to read a typical campaign story…

Howard Fineman writes about presidential advisor and political strategist Karl Rove in the current issue of Newsweek. This story is an excellent example of modern campaign coverage. I cannot legally reproduce it all here, so please jump there now and read it so the following will make sense…All done? Okay…let’s see what’s going on here.

First, notice that this story is focused on personality and campaign strategy. Typical campaign coverage tends to focus on these two elements. The reason for this is that journalism has a narrative bias that leads reporters to frame “stories” as dramas with protagonists and antagonists who act against one another within a plot. The primary importance of a campaign story becomes introducing who the actors are and what they are doing in relation to other actors. The quality of the actors’ actions lead to the goal, which is winning the election.

Next, notice that this “story” ignores the needs of the general public. While it is certainly instructive to demonstrate how politics works, what in this story is useful for the average American voter in making a decision about a presidential election more than two years away? Nothing. Fineman mentions some very important policies but only in the context of political maneuvering. In other words, the personalities and strategies are more important than policy, again typical of modern campaign coverage.

Finally, notice that no sources are named. This is essentailly a one-source story. Since the focus is on Rove, with a mention of Karen Hughes, it is likely that one (or both) of them is the quoted “insider” and “strategist.” In other words, either Rove or Hughes is feeding Fineman some politically charged material for strategic purposes, and Fineman is feeding Newsweek readers as if this were useful information. It is certainly important for the public to understand political strategy, but reporters hinder that understanding when they offer one-sided information.

To be fair to Fineman, I should point out that this piece was published in the “Periscope” section of Newsweek, which they bill as a “heads-up look at scoops, trends, ideas, and people to watch.” So the writing he is doing fits this feature. But the troubling elements of his piece are typical of the kind of coverage we will be seeing beginning next summer when politicians begin formally declaring their intentions to run for president.

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