Truth Isn’t Necessarily Newsworthy

Playing off a Matt Yglesias piece on the injustice of reporters obsessing about HRC’s emails and yawning at Jeb Bush’s tax plan, Kevin Drum notes that some of the disparity is attributable to the practical needs of journalists:

[O]ne thing generates news every few days, the other doesn’t. Trivial or not, Hillary’s email problems produce something fresh and reportable periodically. She apologizes. The FBI announces something. We learn that maybe her personal emails can be recovered. Etc.

Conversely, Jeb Bush’s tax plan doesn’t. Oh, it can generate plenty of analysis and plenty of reports, but that’s not news. It’s just opinion about what Bush’s tax plan will accomplish. You can’t keep writing the same story over and over based on nothing more than yet another liberal saying that big tax cuts are stupid and won’t do anything to help the economy.

That’s all true. But I’d generalize even more and suggest that feeding the news maw affects judgments on what matters in politics at a very basic level. This really hit me during last week’s Bloggingheads TV episode when we were contrasting the views of political scientists on the “fundamentals” they consider determinative of elections with those of “game-change-y” political reporters. Assume for the sake of argument that the political scientists are right. What political reporter is going to throw away his or her hard-earned, precious job that ten thousand people younger than them are scheming to occupy by refusing to write about anything other than the president’s approval rating, the latest GDP estimates, and the same old handicaps or advantages the two parties have based on looking at elections since 1948? How do you vary that? Go back to 1944 some days? Video yourself using hand puppets? No way. So instead you write about this candidate’s “gaffes” and that candidate’s “scandal” and patiently write down volumes of spin from consultants because people don’t really want to read that the whole deal will be wired but we can’t tell you who it’s wired for just yet please tune back in a few months from now!

There’s truth and there’s newsworthiness, and they may or may not coincide. And that’s where the value of analysis comes in, and why I want to scream when people say the only real “journalists” are foot-leather reporters who note each sparrow that falls to the ground. They’re crucial, to be sure, and many are great at their jobs, God bless ’em, but there’s no iron law guaranteeing they are telling you what you really need to know.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.