The Golden Age of Political Journalism is Now
Blogging at the Incidental Economist, University of Chicago public health expert Harold Pollack wrote this week that despite a wealth of misinformation, much of the reporting and analysis on the Affordable Care Act has been "truly excellent."
You don't hear too many endorsements of the press these days. Yet despite the complexities of "Obamacare" and the whirlwind of emotion and partisanship encompassing it, I think Pollack is right: Much of the coverage has been excellent. In fact, I'd go even further and say that news coverage of politics in general has improved in recent years.
Granted, more Americans are probably aware of Mitt Romney's Etch A Sketch problem than are aware of his tax plan's burgeoning debt problem, and that probably indicates a less-than-optimal flow of public information. (The tidal pull of trivia and whimsy is considerable.) You have to know where to look, but overall, the quality of political coverage is markedly better than the reporting of 20 or even 10 years ago.
Can I prove it? Not really. But to buttress my point, I've dredged up a couple of stories from the respective front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post -- which, politics-wise, were then and remain now the two most important newspapers in the land. I can't imagine either story making it onto the front page today.
The first, from the Feb. 1, 1993 Washington Post (now behind a paywall), is infamous among Christian conservatives. I'll let the correction, published the following day, explain why:
"Correction: An article yesterday characterized followers of television evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as `largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.' There is no factual basis for that statement."
For the record, at the time the article was published, data suggested that evangelical Christians were slightly more prosperous and slightly better educated than the average American. (As for "easy to command," today's leaders of the Republican Party might have some thoughts about that one.)
Here's the other example, from the New York Times of March 4, 2001. The headline is "Doing the Math on Bush's Tax Cut," a task the article then scrupulously evades.
"The richest 1 percent of taxpayers would get between 22 percent and 45 percent of the tax benefits, depending on how the calculations are done," the report states.
Between 22 percent and 45 percent? Depending on how the calculations are done? For evidence of the press's unwillingness to arbitrate a dispute between honest analysis and a deliberate attempt to mislead, this is hard to beat. The Bush team was pushing the 22 percent figure while simultaneously refusing to release the official data that would eventually refute it. (According to the Tax Policy Center, the actual share of the 2001 tax cuts that currently accrues to the richest 1 percent of taxpayers is 43.6 percent.)
If either of those articles appeared today, a pack of bloggers (albeit not necessarily the same pack; liberals and conservatives would have inverse incentives in each case) would thoroughly debunk it before the actual newspaper hit the streets the following morning. For those seeking respect and career advancement, fear of public rebuke is a real disincentive for shoddy work. Thanks to the Web, such exposure is much more common today than in the past.
Today, a stellar cast of bloggers is not only keeping the mainstream honest, its members are sometimes setting the pace. Andrew Sullivan strikes out from time to time, but his coverage of the first weekend of the Iranian uprising in 2009 was arguably better and more comprehensive than anything produced at the BBC, New York Times or elsewhere. It was a landmark -- and something for others to aspire to.
Likewise, a newly minted journalism-school graduate is not going to read the work of Ezra Klein, the Washington Post blogger and Bloomberg View columnist who is not long out of college himself, and find a lot of snarky commentary about petty gaffes. Meantime, a new breed of conscientious political science bloggers -- Brendan Nyhan, John Sides and Jonathan Bernstein, to name three -- is subtly tailoring the discourse, creating reputational hazards to seat-of-the-pants punditry.
A whole ecosystem of accountability has evolved on the Web to police political journalism. In fact, if the 2012 election turns out to be a referendum on Etch A Sketch after all, I'd say there's at least a 22 percent to 45 percent chance someone will make me pay for this post.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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