JR: Our site has been rolling out a new feature on scholarship that relates to the 2012 election. You have done a lot of in-depth political reporting. What are your thoughts on how political reporters can do deeper, more-informed journalism? What should they be thinking about a little more?
Nicholas Lemann: First of all, there’s the fairly standard but true complaint that politics is covered too much as a horse race story, like a sports story. Coverage of specific candidates and how their campaign is doing just takes up a lot of bandwidth. So there’s way too much election politics and way too little policy. There’s very little spelling out what difference it would make depending on which candidate is elected. The press has gotten somewhat better on this over the years, but it’s still an issue.
I think the press is way too focused on media strategies — both as they say in the business paid media and earned media — and way too little on grassroots organizing and the so-called “ground game” of politics. Interest groups get under-covered tremendously. There’s also kind of moralism in political journalism; that there are good guys and bad guys; that people are being tested on character; that they are being caught doing bad things or are innocent of doing bad things. There’s a tendency not to understand larger forces — to use a kind of “great man theory” of history — and not to understand politics in the way that political scientists generally do: as a realm where interests come to contend and try to run societies either peacefully or not. Interest groups tend to be treated as illegitimate actors. Compromise tends to be undervalued. Legislation tends to be undervalued. Within political coverage, there tends to be too much focus on the executive branch and not enough on the legislative branch.
There’s not enough cost-benefit analysis applied. A good example is the Arab Spring, where a lot of the press coverage — as with Iraq — had a degree of personalization. It’s the equivalent of horse race coverage, in the sense of, well, “If so-and-so is the dictator of a country and he’s a bad guy, when we take him out then good guys will reign.” It has a sort of narrative logic. There was a rejoicing over people like Gaddafi and Mubarak leaving their jobs and not a lot of analysis of what, if that happens, what will happen next. Will things be better? Will things be worse? What are the contending elements? There’s a tendency to understand things — countries — too much in the form of individuals and to fail to see any action inevitably as having both good and bad consequences, rather than only good consequences.