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Fixing Political Journalism

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This is an interesting essay on how to fix our incredibly broken political journalism that is more interested in horse-races, bipartisanship that means Democrats always cave to Republicans, and trivia such as what kind of watch Joe Biden wears than actually reporting on things that matter.

First of all, we’re going to rebrand you. Effective today, you are no longer political reporters (and editors); you are government reporters (and editors). That’s an important distinction, because it frees you to cover what is happening in Washington in the context of whether it is serving the people well, rather than which party is winning.

Historically, we have allowed our political journalism to be framed by the two parties. That has always created huge distortions, but never like it does today. Two-party framing limits us to covering what the leaders of those two sides consider in their interests. And, because it is appropriately not our job to take sides in partisan politics, we have felt an obligation to treat them both more or less equally.

Both parties are corrupted by money, which has badly perverted the debate for a long time. But one party, you have certainly noticed, has over the last decade or two descended into a froth of racism, grievance and reality-denial. Asking you to triangulate between today’s Democrats and today’s Republicans is effectively asking you to lobotomize yourself. I’m against that.

Defining our job as “not taking sides between the two parties” has also empowered bad-faith critics to accuse us of bias when we are simply calling out the truth. We will not take sides with one political party or the other, ever. But we will proudly, enthusiastically, take the side of wide-ranging, fact-based debate.

While we shouldn’t pretend we know the answers, we should just stop pretending we don’t know what the problems are. Indeed, your main job now is to publicly identify those problems, consider diverse views respectfully, ask hard questions of people on every side, demand evidence, explore intent, and write up what you’ve learned. Who is proposing intelligent solutions? Who is blocking them? And why?

And rather than obsess on bipartisanship, we should recognize that the solutions we need – and, indeed, the American common ground — sometimes lie outside the current Democratic-Republican axis, rather than at its middle, which opens up a world of interesting political-journalism avenues.

Political journalism as we have practiced it also too often emphasizes strategy over substance. It focuses on minor, incremental changes rather than the distance from the desirable – or necessary — goal. It obfuscates, rather than clarifies, the actual problems and the potential solutions.

Who’s winning today’s messaging wars is a story that may get you a lot of tweets, but in the greater scheme of things it means nothing. It adds no value. It’s a distraction from what matters to the public. It also distracts you from more important work.

Tiresomely chronicling who’s up and who’s down actually ends up normalizing the status quo. I ask you to consider taking — as a baseline — the view that there is urgent need for dramatic, powerful action from Washington, not just when it comes to the pandemic and the economic collapse, but regarding climate change and pollution, racial inequities, the broken immigration system, affordable health care, collapsing infrastructure, toxic monopolies, and more.

Then you get to help set the national agenda, based on what your reporting leads you to conclude that the people want, need, and deserve.

I mean, good luck with all of this. But we can dream, can’t we?

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