Political Reporters, the Economy, and the Presidential Race

In 1991, the Greek-owned cruise ship Oceanos sank off South Africa’s eastern coast. All of the crew, including the captain, abandoned ship before many of the passengers got off, leaving them to the safekeeping of the shipboard entertainers.

Watching the presidential candidates mumble and fumble their way around the country’s financial mess, it’s hard not to feel as those passengers must have felt—abandoned and alone, and every man for himself.

In fact, though, the more astute will have felt that way for some time. This, because though you wouldn’t know it from the stories filed by this country’s political reporters, the nation’s financial agony isn’t something that just sneaked up on us in the last few weeks.

From the extraordinarily high price of commodities like oil and gold, to the drying up of business and consumer credit, to the collapse of the housing market, to the sinking value of the dollar against foreign currencies, to the erratic and downward spiraling action in the equity markets, the U.S. economy has been sending out SOS signals for at least a year.

Like the presidential candidates, though, political reporters have been serving up economic mush, when they haven’t ignored the economy altogether in favor of “horse race” stories.

It’s in this environment that John Harris and Jim Vanderhei, co-founders of Politico, accuse Obama and McCain of putting on a bad show. “Tuesday’s debate,” they say “was a look through the wrong end of the telescope. Men with fascinating biographies seemed conventional.”

No argument with that assessment here. But then they come up with this: “Both Obama and McCain were once cult-of-personality candidates, running on their inspirational personal biographies and reformist profiles more than on their policy records.” D’ya think?

In my lifetime there have never been two candidates more uncritically acclaimed by the media. No Republican politician has ever gotten the kind of press coverage that (prior to this campaign) McCain received. And as for the press coverage of Obama, well, to say it’s been fawning is like saying that an eon lasts awhile.

So as the country’s staggering economic problems cast a giant shadow across the land–and in the process reduce the two presidential candidates to dwarflike proportions—it seems kind of late in the day for political reporters to blame the candidates for their lack of substance, much less because they no longer seem “inspirational.”

Journalists have had innumerable chances, over a long period of time and in an eerily declining economy, to explicate and challenge the presidential candidates’ economic policy views. Why haven’t they?

Pining for the candidates lost allure, Harris and Vanderhei close their article with this: “Obama and McCain are men with large life stories, asking to lead the country at a large moment. With one more debate to go, could someone turn the telescope around?”

Perhaps a better question would be when political reporters are going to turn that telescope on themselves.