Why Horserace Journalism?

Paul Krugman speculates as to why political reporting is so dominated by horse race considerations and does such a poor job of trying to explain to people what the consequences of political debates might be for their lives. I think he neglects the extent to which this can be seen as a pretty pure lock-in phenomenon.

After all, the vast majority of people in this day and age don’t watch cable news channels and don’t read newspaper articles about American politics. The minority of the population that does do those things presumably consists of people who find coverage done the way it’s done to be pretty interesting. If you changed it all around to focus more on things like “what does this mean for average people?” or “what sorts of people would be impacted by this bill and how?” and less on things like “what tactics are Republicans using?” or “was it a mistake for Obama to emphasize cost control?” then you’re running a good chance of alienating the audience you have, and just kind of hoping that the people who are currently tuned out would tune in.

And you see this on the production side, too. I don’t, personally, find campaign tactics very interesting in the scheme of things. But the people who report on campaigns find this stuff fascinating. And those people set the tone for coverage. If you come along as a person who’s interested in policy debates but not so fascinated by campaign tactics, you just won’t succeed in a profession dominated by people who are fascinated by political strategy and want to write and edit stories about political strategy. It’s like how NFL draft coverage is never done by people who just say “it’s impossible to predict this stuff, so it’d be more interesting to talk about something else.” Only people who love draft speculation get gigs covering the draft, so draft covering is dominated by a weird approach that simply ignores how much of a crapshoot the whole thing is.