During a campaign, our job as citizens is to decide whom to vote for. Two questions are relevant: What do the candidates propose? And what kind of people are they? The job of the press is to help us answer these two questions. As James Madison wrote, the purpose of the press is “canvassing the merits and measures of public men.”
Instead, we mainly see (even in the best newspapers, and even after 15 years of criticism) a steady stream of stories about campaign tactics, voters’ opinions, the electoral process, and comments that candidates make about one another. I suppose politicians’ tactics and remarks can shed some light on their personal “merits,” but not much. (Even a great potential president could campaign badly or say something inappropriate on the campaign trail). Worse than irrelevant, these stories are harmful, because they suggest that we should not vote for those candidates who currently appear to be doing badly in the horse race. This makes political news a self-fulfilling prophesy; it denies voters the power to choose for themselves. Witness, for example, Elizabeth Rosenthal’s recent front-page story on Senator John Edwards, which is all about how poor his chances are. Rosenthal says nothing that helps us assess Edwards’ “merits” or his “measures.”
Today, at last, the Times runs an article succinctly comparing the economic plans of the nine Democratic presidential contenders.