Blogs > HNN > Why Historians Can Help Campaign Coverage... Even Though This Political Reporter Apologized -- He Got His History Wrong

Dec 8, 2007 3:47 pm

Why Historians Can Help Campaign Coverage... Even Though This Political Reporter Apologized -- He Got His History Wrong

On November 25, the New York Times published an op-ed written by Mark Halperin, a leading political journalist now at Time magazine. Entitled “How ‘What It Takes’ Took Me Off Course,” Halperin blamed Richard Ben Cramer’s 1992 book about the 1988 campaign, What It Takes: The Way to the White House for teaching him – and a whole generation of reporters -- to assume that great campaigners make great presidents. Halperin wrote: “The book’s thesis — that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office — has shaped the universe of political coverage.” Now, Halperin says, he has seen the light: “The ‘campaigner equals leader’ formula that inspired me and so many others in the news media is flawed.”

Cramer may have influenced Halperin. Still, Halperin reflects an all too typical, Clintonesque narcissism in conflating autobiography with history. The granddaddy of all “horse-race” reporters was Theodore H. White. White’s The Making of the President 1960 offered insider’s coverage of the battle between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. It is the most important book that shaped political coverage over the last half-century – and its influence was reinforced by White’s succeeding volumes covering 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976. By the time Cramer came along, reporters were already addicted to character studies, minor biographical details that could be magnified, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, insignificant gaffes that could be made into scandals, perpetual polls, and, most annoying of all, the tendency to try reporting what happened before it actually occurred.

Theodore White always provided deep historical perspective and incisive social commentary while producing masterpieces of reportage. Were he alive today, what he spawned probably would appall him, even though he would acknowledge the great skill of Cramer, Halperin and many of the reporters who perpetuate today’s many journalistic sins on the campaign trail. White would be particularly dismayed by the short historical memory Halperin and so many of his peers display.

The first voting in caucuses and primaries is a month away. We historians have an important role to play as America votes. The point is not to pretend that historians have a clearer crystal ball than reporters, or voters themselves. Rather, we can help offer context, comparisons, points of reference. This blog will try to help us look forward by looking backward, seeing how they ran in the past as a way of better understanding why they run as they do today – and what we can learn about this fascinating, frustrating, democratic marathon that has been going on for months already – but now is going to start making history.

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Gil Troy - 12/6/2007

Thanks Kevin for adding a little more dimensionality to the discussion. We're talking about two overlapping phenomena -- let's call the first, as you do, "horse race journalism" and the second, "character-obsessed reportage." Both are the results of many modern forces in the media age. I would still argue that in making up a list of prime suspects responsible for giving birth to both phenomena, Theodore White would be at the top of the list; Richard Ben Cramer -- whose book I loved reading -- would be nowhere on the list.

Kevin R Kosar - 12/5/2007

One wonders- who started horse race journalism? Did Theodore White? Jack Germond, who now criticizes it, was an early practicioner. Did horsr race journalism begin with the advent of mass polling of the public?

Horse race journalism strikes me as at least as poisonous as journalism that covers irrelevant candidate minutiae. The rare substantive reviews of candidates proposals, positions, and past governing experience get eclipsed by the relentless media focus on who is winning and raising the most money. Very early on, members of the major media outlets decide which candidates are "electable," and therefore worth covering in their papers, magazines, etc. Tommy Thompson, the former governor and Secretary of DHHS, was a person who really understood how to make government work. He might have made a fine president. The same might be said for Chris Dodd in the Senate, a guy with an awful lot of government experience. Both have been largely ignored by the media during this election cycle, which is obsessed with candidates that have big money backing them. Too bad for us.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/4/2007

I think you have it exactly right.
As citizens, historians are no more ability to predict the future than any other educated group. But we can offer mulitple perspectives on the past to help people understand the present and shape their actions accordingly.

Good luck in your quest.