Ballot Box

The Media’s Substance Problem

QUEENS, N.Y.–George Bush began his visit to New York City yesterday with a stop at a charter school in Harlem. Afterward, he gave an eloquent speech in which he unveiled a second major education policy initiative dealing with charter schools, reorganizing federal education programs, and a proposal that vaguely resembles national testing for third- through eighth-graders. Today Bush appeared with Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at a city welfare-office-turned-job-center. People stood up and gave moving testimony about how the center and ones like it steer people away from welfare and into work.

After everyone spoke, Bush held a press conference, his only one of the trip. Here is what reporters asked:

Q: Gov. Bush, some conservative Republicans have said that your criticism last week and again yesterday is undermining their credibility on Capitol Hill. Have you made a political calculation that you can afford to alienate the right wing if that means courting more moderate voters?

Q: Gov. Bush, there are many New Yorkers who perceive that Pat Buchanan is anti-Semitic, anti-black, and anti-immigrant. Should he be read out of the Republican Party?

Q: Is there room in the big tent for bigotry?

Q: Gov. Bush, Gov. Pataki and Mayor Giuliani have both decried racism and anti-Semitism. … Your Louisiana campaign chair purchased mailing lists from David Duke. When you were asked about that, you said you didn’t even know anything about it …

Q: Governor, you talked earlier about the Republican Party and the image of the party. There have been four national elections this decade. Could you just talk about each one and talk about how you think that’s caused the party’s image to go off track and how that informs what you’re trying to do now?

Q. You say the party’s been mischaracterized. … But last week there was an actual thing they were doing that was not mischaracterized [i.e., attempting to delay payments under the Earned Income Tax Credit]. It was an actual policy.

Q. You said several months ago that you would not campaign against this Republican Congress. But some people hear what you said over the last week as precisely that.

Bush was asked no questions about education and only one about welfare. This concerned a federal investigation into whether Giuliani was “improperly denying benefits for some recipients.” In other words, the questions he got from reporters focused on politics and positioning to the total exclusion of his actual policies and positions. Reporters tried to provoke Bush into making news or embarrassing his hosts, while ignoring the social policy issues on his agenda.

It’s not that the questions they asked weren’t interesting or legitimate (though most did fall under the category of “already asked and answered”). I’ve heard far worse at other press conferences dominated by local TV loudmouths asking endless stentorian variations on the essential horse-race query “Who’s going to win?” And a focus on pure politics is surely better than a focus on personal misbehavior or the issue of whether evangelical Christians should be alone with women not their wives. But why can’t reporters devote at least some of their time and intelligence to actual issues?

I can think of a few reasons for the allergy to substance. The first is the imperative for daily reporters to move the ball on an ongoing story, such as Bush vs. Buchanan or Bush vs. the congressional Republicans. Advancing such a conflict automatically counts as news. Some new detail about Bush’s education policy, by contrast, might or might not make the paper. A second factor is the journalistic culture of the news conference, which rewards zinger questions that provoke news–and discourages anything that courts televised dullness. A third factor is the newsroom division between politics and policy. Most reporters covering the campaign are well schooled in the former and only minimally, if at all, knowledgeable about the latter. They may understand the politics of school choice or welfare reform, but tend to be far shakier on the substance.

The chief complaint of reformers these days is that the power of special-interest money is breeding public cynicism about the political process. Horse-race journalism has more or less the same effect. It tells the public that all politicians ever do is quarrel–without doing much to elucidate what, if anything, they might be fighting about.

Bushism of the Week:
“May I finish please? I was just getting to my peero-ation.”
(Queens Job Center, Oct. 6, 1999).