But far too many remain for our own good.
Along with the handful of presidential candidates who dropped out so far, voters might be better served if a hundred or so of my political-reporter and pundit colleagues dropped out as well – and were replaced by journalists whose beats are about national security, economics, environment and health care.
For our coverage has not been serving the public interest by providing the sort of information voters really need to know – especially in the last weeks when many voters make their decisions.
Much of the blame goes to the editors who apparently are satisfied with the sort of poll-driven horse-race journalism that we have gotten in the final weeks.
Political journalists are a unique breed within our craft. Their job (as assigned by their editors) is to cover contests in which the contestants debate a wide range of vital issues – subjects about which the journalists who cover them have no expertise. So when the candidates are proposing their detailed plans for the economy or the war or health care or global warming, the journalists who cover the candidates rarely ask informed, penetrating follow-up questions. (Unless they are fed these questions by an opposing candidate's issues specialists.)
But occasionally, a news organization and its editors rise to the occasion and get it right. Which is what The New York Times did on Wednesday, Jan. 2, the day before the Iowa caucuses and six days before the New Hampshire primary. The Times had dispatched to the campaign trail Washington correspondent Michael R. Gordon, whose reputation has nothing to do with political journalism but who is a top Pentagon correspondent and co-author of a much-praised book on the Iraq war.
He interviewed former Sen. John Edwards about just how the North Carolina Democrat will fulfill his campaign promise to end the war in Iraq. His in-depth questions led Edwards to provide his most detailed explanation yet: He intends to withdraw within 10 months virtually all U.S. troops, including those who are training Iraqi forces and police.
And the newspaper had the good sense to play the news on its front page, right where we usually see those campaign horse-race stories.
But that, unfortunately, was the exception in a week in which America's news media – such as the prime-time TV network news, the nonstop cable news and, of course, the front pages of virtually all U.S. newspapers – were dominated by stories covering every nit and nuance about Sen. Barack Obama's surge in Iowa and New Hampshire, not the U.S. military's surge in Iraq.
Indeed, on Tuesday, the day of the New Hampshire primary, The Washington Post's lead editorial focused on the Democratic presidential candidates and the surge in Iraq. "Why do the Democratic candidates refuse to acknowledge progress in Iraq?" asked the sub-headline above the editorial. Perhaps the editors at the Post should have been asking each other why they had not sent their paper's defense-policy experts out to the campaign trail to grill the candidates and inform the public about just that.
Actually, The Washington Post has done some fine campaign journalism this year – from national correspondent Michael Dobbs and his team of researchers, who produce a series titled, "The Fact Checker." It regularly compares candidate statements with the truth – and reports to us when the candidates are lying, deceiving or exaggerating.
After Saturday night's New Hampshire debates, "The Fact Checker" reported five short and direct stories. Among them:
- That Republican Mike Huckabee "was simply wrong" in saying he had supported President Bush's Iraq war policy before Mitt Romney did – and that he supported the surge while Romney did not.
- That Romney made an assertion that was "untrue" in saying his campaign ad had never accused John McCain of favoring "amnesty" for illegal immigrants – his ad said just that.
- And that Hillary Clinton was "exaggerating her role in extending health-care benefits to National Guard members."
The Washington Post played those little stories on page A6. Voters would be better served if every news outlet gave Page One or prime-time coverage to each of these stories. And who knows? Perhaps the candidates might stop – or at least curb – their lying, deceiving and exaggerating.
Perhaps even politicians can be paper-trained.