I first realized that media coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign – a contest for an open seat – would go far off the rails of responsible journalism when the talking heads on cable TV raised the subject just days after President Obama’s re-election win in November 2012.

These pundits would say that it’s much too early to speculate about 2016 but …

They couldn’t help themselves. They remain consumed by a non-stop mind game that is obsessed with determining the next election’s twists and turns.

So, as the Campaign ’16 voting has actually arrived, political reporters and commentators are getting hammered in a way that Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio could only imagine.

For example, historian Ross Rosenfeld wrote last week that the treatment of Donald Trump’s endless misstatements and bombastic exaggerations, which have endured in a journalism bubble, would make legendary reporters such as Edward R. Murrow cringe:

After Trump chickened out of the (last Iowa) debate because a journalist he referred to as a “bimbo” had been “unfair” to him, most of the media were all too eager to become accomplices by covering Trump’s supposed “alternate event” and giving him the vainglorious attention he desired.

Is this the best that we can do? Is this the sorry state that the American media have deteriorated into? … Have political gamesmanship and ratings taken the place of responsible reporting?

But that critique pales in comparison to the sharp-tongued blasts leveled at the political punditry class by author and columnist Michael Wolff.

In a column for USA Today, Wolff laments that political reporting has devolved from the daily grind of reporting on candidates’ campaign appearances to sweeping commentary that pretends to know what happens next. The result is an endless stream of prognostications that are “spectacularly wrong.”

Michael Wolff


What we have witnessed over the past year, Wolff noted, is a frenzied media rush in which “Hillary is inevitable, until she is not. Donald Trump is a joke, until he too is inevitable, until he is not. Even Ben Carson was possibly inevitable until he turned out never to have even possibly been inevitable. Anyway, pay no attention because Marco Rubio is inevitable.”

Then he applies the dagger:

“If you had followed no campaign reporting for the past six months, watched no debates, listened to no commentary and forsaken all polling, you would now be no less wise about what will happen from here until next November.”

Consider this: More than 800 members of the media received press credentials to cover the September telecast of the CNN GOP debate — more than a year before the 2016 election.

Wolff correctly points out that the media – and particularly cable TV commentators – ignore policy positions and issues in favor of a compelling narrative. They search for that searing language that portrays the journey to the White House as a melodrama with a war-like theme in which the contenders battle in the political arena until one is left standing.

In fact, the presidential race should return to a sober – even relatively boring – competition about ideas and stances on issues, followed up by hundreds of little details about what voters could expect in January 2017. Wolff knows that such a retro approach would mean mediocre TV ratings and a dismal amount of clicks on news websites and social media:

… Politics in fact moves slowly and is absent all magical charm. If it has seemed to change (in recent decades), this has as much to do with the fact that the news media has changed. There are fewer reporters on the day-after-day campaign bus — that costs too much money. Social media, and its viral assessments, is now the main source of campaign reporting. Polling is far more frequent, far more authoritative, and far more in need of an overarching explanation to justify the fact that, reflecting compounded anomalies as each poll influences the next, they mean nothing. And, most of all, political campaigns return ever-more money to the media itself. They are one of the media’s few reliable profit centers.