Press Box

Wall to Wall to Wal-Mart Political Coverage

In this press-saturated campaign, no voter is underserved.

I’d love to critique presidential campaign coverage and would do so today if only I could locate my notes in the mudslide of profiles, news stories, investigations, gossip, poll data, opinion pieces, analysis, and meta-analysis squeezing me out of my office, bulging from my briefcase, and clogging my broadband until it bursts. A block-long queue of political videos awaits the click of my mouse. Unread RSS feeds from political blogs hector me from my desktop. And my TiVo reminds me of all the debates I’ve neglected to view.

Even political news gluttons must feel as staggered by the surfeit of coverage this campaign season, as did the proverbial Soviet émigré the first time he wheeled a shopping cart into a 1960s Safeway. The big difference is that today’s news supermarket is a 24-hour Wal-Mart with miles of aisles instead of a few manageable choices.

Highly perishable political news—think fruits and vegetables—are the first thing to choose from as you enter this hypermarket. Blogs track politics by the second, and because the Wal-Mart press corps never sleeps, you can get tomorrow’s news today from Talking Points Memo, Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic,and Ben Smith at Politico. Can’t get enough of that Republican micro-coverage? See the National Review Online’s primer on today’s California primary or the Weekly Standard on the “left-wing conspiracy” to elect John McCain. Want an independent site to scrape the Web and serve the day’s best coverage for you? That would be Real Clear Politics.

In the canned-goods section, you can still find David “The Dean” Broder and other commentariat vets pushing the standard crap. But steer your cart out of there for the novelties aisle, which offers entertaining gossip about Barack Obama missing the season debut of his favorite TV show, a close analysis of John McCain’s sweaters, and “The Love Song of Dennis J. Kucinich.” If you’re shopping for red meat, you can’t do better than Slate’s John Dickerson or The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, reporters who fold their political insights into coherent narratives, or New York TimesMark Leibovich, who gives every politician the Vulcan mind meld he deserves.

The Wal-Mart press corps has adopted the methods and practices of the pressies who cover Paris Hilton and Britney Spears: No issue, no angle, no strategy, no ad spot, no deviation, no utterance (nor any failure to utter), no costume change, no gesture, and no inflection is too small to escape notice and comment. The press has a hair trigger when it comes to “moment”-hunting, be it the Clinton tear-watch, the Clinton race card watch, the Fred Thompson laziness watch, the Edwards hair watch, or the Dennis Kucinich alien watch.

But that’s a good thing. The abundance of coverage has billowed oxygen into dozens of issues, topics, and candidacies that would have otherwise gone uncommented upon. I’m thinking here of Mike Huckabee’s ideas on imposing a “fair tax,” of Ron Paul’s views on the Federal Reserve System, and the view that Mitt Romney’s religion automatically disqualified him for the presidency. The vetting process has been so thorough that the New Republic went to the trouble of uncovering marginal candidate Ron Paul’s racist newsletters, and helped unmask who actually wrote them.

The saturation coverage has created a beneficial “tyranny of choice” for voters, allowing them to browse narrower and narrower categories and offering them something new every time they stop ‘n’ shop for political news—and to pick up a camera and a laptop and produce something better if they think they can.

Without the tyranny of choice, I doubt that John Edwards’ views on lobbyists and poverty would have gotten as much notice. Had it not been for the hundreds of thousands of paid and unpaid “associates” maniacally observing his campaign, would Obama have picked up on Edwards’ lobbyist rant and tormented Clinton with it? And what but journalistic overkill led the press to notice how badly Clinton stumbled during the driver’s license debate, a miscue that hinted that the Democratic contest might actually turn into a real race?

There are still fringe presidential candidacies, but thanks to the overflowing coverage, there is no such thing as a fringe candidate. That Mike Gravel got mainstream coverage for his simultaneous debate events is a testament to our voraciousness. Everybody is getting heard by somebody, which probably explains why Ralph Nader is talking about getting back in the contest. Here’s candidate-to-be Ralph himself, instructing Wolf Blitzer on what sort of questions he should have asked Obama and Clinton at the Kodak Theater.

Nobody is safe from journalistic scrutiny this time around, not even the most esteemed members of the press corps, who convulsed like downers at a slaughterhouse when their New Hampshire predictions turned to ash.

You might think that the level of minutiae would alienate voters and news consumers, but I’ve yet to hear anybody complain that they can’t escape the campaign coverage. Perhaps it’s because political junkies never O.D. Their tolerance is so high that no dose can kill them.


Disclosure: I know practically everybody I wrote about in this column. Send your protests to (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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