The not-so-discreet charm of standard-issue political reporting

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The mainstream media get a lot of flak for focusing so much on political horse races and neglecting the big issues. I tend to agree with this criticism, and when I’m not bloviating about soccer I try to devote most of the space in this blog and in my Time column to more or less substantive discussion of economic and business issues–what’s known in certain circles as “kale.” This isn’t just out of idealism: I OD’d on political reporting in Alabama in the early 1990s, and am mostly bored by it now. I’ve also got my own career prospects in mind: There are lots of people covering politics, at Time and elsewhere, who can write better than I can and are willing to work much harder than I am. There aren’t quite so many such folks covering economics.

Anyway, I got to work late Monday, and in my absence the powers that be at Time decided I ought to write an online piece about Obama’s new campaign push on the economy. I read his Raleigh, N.C., kick-off speech, listened in on a conference call with his economic advisers, and quickly whipped out a 600+-word essay. Because I was writing quickly and was not super-confident of my take on Obama’s economic plans, I did lean a little bit toward the horse-racey, focusing not so much on whether Obama’s proposals were good or bad ideas but on whether they had “coalesced into anything you could really call a rallying cry.”

I’m not going to disown the piece: I wrote it, and the editing was minimal. But it wasn’t the kind of stuff I most pride myself on. Guess what, though: None of the stuff I most pride myself on ever tops the list of most-read stories at Time.com, gets linked to by Hotline and New York‘s Intelligencer blog, or gets eviscerated in TPM Cafe.

Greg Anrig’s TPM evisceration actually referred only to a brief passage in the piece where I, in his words, “pooh-pooh ideas that aren’t new, even if those ideas have proven to be effective in the past,” a practice he deems “one of the most annoying habits of journalists who write about public policy.” It’s a fair enough criticism, I guess. But 99% of the time that’s not what I do. It’s just that, well, Greg Anrig and most of the rest of the online world don’t pay any attention when I’m not writing directly about the presidential campaign. Sigh.

The piece got so much traction online that I was asked to rework it into my column for the magazine this week. I’ll also be talking about it on CNN Wednesday at 12:10. I can’t escape it.

Explanations of why journalists write so much about political horse races tend to focus on the supply side: It’s easy, it enables you to skirt charges of political bias, etc. All true, but it turns out there really is demand out there, too. Some of it is from editors and other mainstream media outlets, sure. But it also comes from readers and the blogosphere. As a rule (and of course there are exceptions), journalists get more attention when they write about politics than when they write about policy. While I’m more than happy to retreat back into semi-obscurity, can you really blame other folks for not wanting to?

Update: I guess I should make clear that, just because I don’t have a problem with Anrig’s main point about pooh-poohing ideas just because they aren’t new doesn’t mean that I agree with the rest of his post (it’s just that I try not to make sweeping condemnations based on one or two lines that are clearly not central to somebody’s argument. Unlike, uh, Greg Anrig). I’ll get to the whole windfall profits thing, which I admit is something of a mixed bag, in a later post. But his most tendentious statement was this:

Also, does Time’s Justin Fox know that the retirement age for Social Security is already scheduled to increase to 67 by 2022? Most wonks are actually much more supportive of Obama’s idea of raising the ceiling on Social Security payroll taxes than increasing the retirement age even further.

My response:
a) Of course I know that. First, I’m a semi-competent journalist. Second, I don’t hit retirement age until after 2022, and I get those updates from the Social Security Administration every year telling me what I’ll get when.
b) I guess it’s possible that Anrig has done an actual wonk count and the majority supports his position. But there are lots who think the retirement age should at least be up for discussion. Witness this recent Urban Institute take on the matter.

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