horse-race coverage at its worst

(In DC briefly for a Kettering Board meeting) This is how Katharine Q. Seelye begins her introductory profile of presidential candidate Rick Santorum in the New York Times:

Exasperation crept into Rick Santorum’s voice when he was asked the other day how he planned to win the Republican nomination for president in 2012 after having lost his last election as senator from Pennsylvania by more than 17 points in 2006.

Rather than discuss his strategy, he critiqued the question.

We readers are potential voters. If the Times chooses to write about Sen. Santorum at all, it should tell us what he has done, what he proposes, and what he believes, so that we can consider voting for or against him. Instead, the entire Times profile is about Sen. Santorum’s low chances of winning the nomination, and his “exasperation” at being asked whether he realizes that he will inevitably lose.

This kind of story can be a self-fulfilling prophesy, depriving voters of a choice. At a minimum, the Times misses a chance to inform the public and support a discussion of the candidates and issues. To be clear: I wouldn’t vote for Rick Santorum in a million years. But that is because I think I know what he believes, and I disagree with it. I could be wrong, which is why I read the newspaper. The job of reporters is to help us form and check our views.

This kind of profile, by the way, is a quadrennial ritual in the Times and other newspapers. I remember a very similar treatment of Sen. Lamar Alexander, who managed to interject that he wanted to run on the ideal of “civil society,” in the midst of an article about how he could never raise enough money to be competitive. We never found out what he meant by “civil society” or whether it was a good idea.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.