During the 2000 election, many journalists deluded themselves and their audience into believing that there weren't many policy differences between the major candidates, and focused on personalities (or, rather, perceptions of personalities) instead. This time there can be no illusions: President Bush has turned this country sharply to the right, and this election will determine whether the right's takeover is complete.
But will the coverage of the election reflect its seriousness? Toward that end, I hereby propose some rules for 2004 political reporting.
• Don't talk about clothes. Al Gore's endorsement of Howard Dean was a momentous event: the man who won the popular vote in 2000 threw his support to a candidate who accuses the president of wrongfully taking the nation to war. So what did some prominent commentators write about? Why, the fact that both men wore blue suits.
This was not, alas, unusual. I don't know why some journalists seem so concerned about politicians' clothes as opposed to, say, their policy proposals. But unless you're a fashion reporter, obsessing about clothes is an insult to your readers' intelligence.
• Actually look at the candidates' policy proposals. One key proposal in the State of the Union address will, we hear, be the creation of new types of tax-exempt savings accounts. The proposal will come wrapped in fine phrases about an "ownership society." But serious journalists should tell us how the plan would work, who would benefit and who would lose.
An early version of the plan was floated almost a year ago, and carefully analyzed in the journal Tax Notes. So there's no excuse for failing to report that the plan would probably reduce, not increase, national savings; that it would have large long-run budget costs; and that its benefits would go mainly to the wealthiest few percent of the population.
• Beware of personal anecdotes. Anecdotes that supposedly reveal a candidate's character are a staple of political reporting, but they should carry warning labels.
For one thing, there are lots of anecdotes, and it's much too easy to report only those that reinforce the reporter's prejudices. The approved story line about Mr. Bush is that he's a bluff, honest, plain-spoken guy, and anecdotes that fit that story get reported. But if the conventional wisdom were instead that he's a phony, a silver-spoon baby who pretends to be a cowboy, journalists would have plenty of material to work with.
If a reporter must use anecdotes, they'd better be true. After the Dean endorsement, innumerable reporters cracked jokes about Al Gore's inventing the Internet. Guys, he never said that: it's a malicious distortion of a true statement, and no self-respecting journalist would repeat it.
• Look at the candidates' records. A close look at Mr. Bush's record as governor would have revealed that, the approved story line notwithstanding, he was no moderate. A close look at Mr. Dean's record in Vermont reveals that, the emerging story line notwithstanding, he is no radical: he was a fiscally conservative leader whose biggest policy achievement — nearly universal health insurance for children — was the result of incremental steps.
• Don't fall for political histrionics. I couldn't believe how much ink was spilled after the Gore-Dean event over Joe Lieberman's hurt feelings. Folks, we're talking about war, peace and the future of U.S. democracy — not about who takes whom to the prom.
Political operatives have become experts at manufacturing the appearance of outrage. In the last few weeks the usual suspects have been trying to paint Howard Dean's obviously heartfelt comments about his brother's death in Laos as some sort of insult to the military. We owe it to our readers not to fall for these tricks.
• It's not about you. We learn from The Washington Post that reporters covering Mr. Dean are surprised — and, it's implied, miffed — that "he never asks a single question about them." The mind reels.
I don't really expect my journalistic colleagues to follow these rules. No doubt I myself, in moments of weakness, will break one or more of them. But history will not forgive us if we allow laziness and personal pettiness to shape this crucial election.
Originally published in The New York Times, 12.26.03