The Limits of Journalism

Jon Bernstein had a good op-ed earlier this week about the Obama administration’s strange neglect of judicial appointments. Brendan Nyhan observes that you could say the same about the Fed. John Sides wonders why we don’t see any reporting on this from the oodles of journalists who cover the White House.

It’s an interesting question that in some ways cuts to the heart of everything that’s wrong with reporting. Nobody reports on Obama not prioritizing judicial nominations because people only report on the things that are happening. “Liberal Judicial Groups Slam Obama For Neglecting Judiciary” is a story you write, whereas “Obama Neglecting Judiciary” isn’t. In the real world the fact that Obama is neglecting the judiciary is a bigger deal than the extent to which groups are or are not slamming him over it, but that’s not how it looks to the conventions of journalism. Meanwhile, an interesting sub-story to this is that liberal judicial groups haven’t generally tried to gin up such headlines. That’s a tactical decision they made based on what they think their best strategy is. But that means that if you did try to write the “Obama Neglecting Judiciary” story you’d have a big problem. The people in the best position to give you detailed complaints on this subject have made a tactical decision to avoid ginning up headlines about them attacking the White House. So the people who know won’t tell you. They won’t tell you, that is, unless they think you won’t be doing a high-profile story about it.

On the Fed, my best understanding is that they just didn’t think the Board of Governors nominations would matter. In retrospect, I think that was a huge (and still underrated) mistake but they made it at the time for the pretty good reason that for the past two or three decades nobody saw instances of BOG nominations mattering to monetary policy.