What’s the job of the press with regard to presidential candidates?

That’s a very tricky question. It comes up because there’s a bit of a flap about Ron Paul’s coverage post-Ames — he’s not getting very much, and Politico’s Roger Simon thinks that’s wrong (but see Steve Kornacki, who nails it…oh, so does Kevin Drum).

OK, let’s get to this. Putting aside the school of thought that says reporters should do whatever gets them the most readers, and thinking in terms of their function within a democracy…the problem is that there’s a real conflict. On the one hand, it’s a Good Thing to publicize all the points of view. People who see things through that lens say things like “the press shouldn’t pick winners,” and that’s true…looking at things in that way. So the press should tell us who Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are and what they have to say, but also should tell us who Ron Paul and Gary Johnson and, I suppose, Roy Moore are and their views. Presumably, Republicans who are making choices would want those choices to be well-informed.

And yet, that’s not all Republicans making choices want to know. They also want to know which candidates have a chance to win. And reporters presumably have an obligation to report on the horse race aspect of what’s going on. Moreover, the process depends on the ability of Republican actors to signal to each other (and, eventually, to voters) as they coordinate and compete over the nomination. If important Republican actors are saying that (for example) Michele Bachmann is doing well but Ron Paul isn’t, well, the press should let us know about it.

Or: we could think of it another way altogether, from a real party and not candidate point of view. After all, that would be more accurate. But it’s a lot to ask of the press, since it goes up against their well-known bias for people over processes. Which just gets back to that for all that anyone might stipulate that they should ignore what sells newspapers (I know, I know, it’s a dated phrase), in real life they aren’t going to do so.

At any rate, I’m not going to clear up any of this in a short blog post. The point is only that even if we ask for the press to fulfill democratic functions, that still leaves plenty of conflicts.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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