The Sad State of Political Journalism

Barry Fagin


From the Colorado Springs Independent


Something is rotten with the state of political journalism.What used to be an incisive, thought-provoking, and essential component of modern life has become predictable, boring, and formulaic.Want to write some political copy?Here's how:


1) Pick some government body, call it A.It doesn't matter if it's national, state, or local, just make sure it's one your readers pay taxes to support.


2) Pick a special interest group B, preferably one that your readers don't like.I recommend "the rich", "environmentalists", "Archer Daniels Midland", or "the homosexual lobbyĒ, depending on your audience.


3) Do some investigative reporting to discover how group B is getting special treatment from government agency A.This should take about 5 minutes.


4) Express your shock and anger, demand that something be done.


It's all become so predictable.How did things get this bad?Have the rest of us just become so cynical that we don't respond to muckraking the way we used to?


I think something else is going here, something that political journalists need to pay attention to.We're not shocked any more by this kind of stuff because our daily experience tells us that's how government works.†† Politics responds to the concentration of power, by bestowing benefits on the politically powerful and distributing costs among the politically weak.Whatever the noble ideals of representative government may be, political theory is seldom reconcilable with practice.When that happens in my line of work, I throw out the theory.


Political journalism could get interesting again if writers would just step back from their subject matter for a moment and question their most cherished assumption:the effectiveness of politics in solving society's problems.Once you start asking the question of whether politics should be involved at all, things get much more thought-provoking.


After all, every abuse that political journalism seeks to correct is rooted in the application of political power.Angry about the savings and loan bailout?Why not ask what Congress was doing in the deposit insurance business?Ticked off at Archer Daniels Midland?Why not ask why government gives out corporate handouts?Bent out of shape at shady real estate deals between your city council and influential citizens?Why not ask what your local government needs to own buildings downtown?


These are really good questions, but itís hard to get political writers to ask them.Iím not exactly sure why thatís true, but hereís my working hypothesis:If you cover politics long enough, it becomes your religion.It adds meaning to your life, and you take its assumptions on faith.Questioning the effectiveness of politics as an institution becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.


But it shouldnít be.When it comes to understanding the world we live in, (where politics surely belongs), we should be questioning our assumptions all the time precisely because theyíre so often wrong.Itís exactly through challenging what we think we know that we come to comprehend the universe in which we find ourselves.Politics should be no different.


We now know a lot more than we used to about how politics works in practice, and what it takes to for a society to thrive.Based on that evidence, I think thatpolitics is effective for certain essential but very limited tasks, not nearly as many as we currently use it for.But even I am mistaken, political writers have a responsibility to ask us the hard questions of our time.That canít happen until they ask some hard questions of themselves.