On Telling Political Stories

Conor Friedersdorf has been writing lately about ways that political reporting could be improved, and I’ll probably have more to say about some of his specific ideas later.

One thing that I think is fairly safe to say is that overall we get too much analysis, and too little great story-telling. Now, obviously I say this as one who is contributing to the glut of analysis, so it’s a fair call to say that my own perspective is not exactly that of a typical reader. And I’m of course a huge fan of a lot of the analysis that’s out there.

But far too much initial political reporting, in my view at least, is dedicated to proving that various stories matter. My reaction? Great political stories don’t need to “matter” to be great stories, and they certainly don’t need to matter beyond what they are. That is, the House special election today in NY-26 is a great story even if it doesn’t signal anything about what will happen in 2012, or what will happen to Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan, or anything else beyond who will represent the folks of New York’s 26th congressional district in the House of Representatives for the rest of the 112th Congress. I mean, you have all sorts of stuff: a resignation in disgrace, the effects of a major national issue on a specific local election, a goofball third party candidate, scrambling by national parties to get involved, a candidate who (I found out today) doesn’t even live in the district but could still win, and then whatever local flavor you can add to that…it’s a terrific story. It shouldn’t, at least in the first instance, only be treated as important because of What It Can Tell Us about other things.

Same point about presidential elections. Look, I’ll argue forever that only Romney and Pawlenty, among the current fully active GOP candidates, have a decent chance of being nominated. But several of the other candidates are great stories — and to tell those stories, reporters shouldn’t feel obliged to force them into a context of What It Means or make implausible arguments about a mythical Garry Johnson surge or how Herman Cain really could win after all.

And of course analysis is important too; someone needs to point out that Johnson and Cain aren’t going to win. That’s an important part of news coverage. But in my view at least, there’s just not enough appreciate for stories-as-stories.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.