Surprise! Political Reporters Are Shallow

A catch to Kevin Drum for his analysis of why the national media clobbered Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who is challenging Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, for ducking a question about whether she voted for President Barack Obama. Why is the “neutral” news media going easier on some Republican Senate candidates who have ducked questions on far more substantive issues? Drum asked.

It isn’t an issue of political bias or about reporters’ interest in supporting their predictions of a Republican landslide. Instead, Drum said, it’s all about “process over substance” — “reporters feel free to go after that.” Contrast the coverage of Grimes’s clumsy handling of that gotcha question with how reporters have covered the “crafty” (Drum’s word) approaches taken by Joni Ernst of Iowa on environmental and health-care policy and by Cory Gardner of Colorado for his views on abortion and contraception:

That sort of craftiness generally invites little censure because political reporters don’t want to be seen taking sides on an issue of policy — or even rendering judgment about whether a candidate’s policy positions have changed. In fact, being crafty on policy is often viewed as actively praiseworthy because it shows how politically savvy a candidate is.

Had Grimes merely parroted well-rehearsed nonsense about voting for Obama but whatever and such-and-such, she might have been praised, not ridiculed.

Maybe this isn’t so much about the self-interest of reporters (although that is certainly part of it), but their self-absorption. If you spend most of your time watching how politicians interact with the media, then it’s easy to inflate the importance of that comparatively small part of the job of an elected official or even a candidate. Relations with the reporter and his or her colleagues become a stand-in for everything else.

In any case, looking at media norms — as opposed to ideological bias — as an explanation for media behavior is the correct analysis here. Republican whining notwithstanding, we know one thing pretty well: The biases of the “neutral” news media are products of how they go about doing their jobs, not of partisanship or personal policy preferences.

Nice catch!

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

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