Late-night comedians tell their jokes. Editorial cartoonists poke and prod the candidates. Political reporters painstakingly review each and every tick of the primary clock. Welcome to the 2012 Republican primary, a who’s who of wacky candidates, crazy twists and turns, and, at the end, a candidate who may end up becoming the next president of the United States.
This primary might be the most well-covered election to date. Television news and Internet reporting have covered the facts of the race from every conceivable angle and exploited nearly every possible storyline, while talking heads on television have offered their opinions about the candidates left, right, and center.
What’s often missing from our daily discussion is the soft space in between these loud and often dominating aspects of modern journalism. Newspaper columnists have traditionally filled this void, as they possess the unique ability to step off the coverage fast-track and shed some light on the deeper, often overlooked, issues of the race.
“I think we’ve gone beyond the 24- hour news cycle to 24 one-hour news cycles,” said Esther Cepeda, a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. “I think the competition between major news outlets is making media coverage look like a school of fish — going in one direction one minute, then another the next.”
The horse-race aspect of covering an election is important, simply because people want to know who is ahead and who is behind. The advantage of being a columnist is that you can get as horse-racy as you want, or get as far away from the horse-race coverage as you can.
The question facing columnists in our modern media environment of iPads, smartphones, and instant gratification, is if a more nuanced viewpoint will be overlooked in favor of the in-your-face arguing we’re most accustomed to seeing on television. “
While instant news is valuable, instant opinions rarely are,” said Peter Funt, a syndicated columnist for Cagle Cartoons. “In fact, too many half-baked, quickly authored opinions are detrimental. As consumers get news and information 24/7, it’s more important than ever, I believe, to have opinion columnists step back and digest things before opining.”
In one of his recent columns, Funt wrote about one highly overlooked aspect of the Republican primary — the age of the candidates. Funt wrote that if Newt Gingrich won the nomination and ended up defeating Barack Obama, he’d be in a virtual tie with Ronald Reagan as the oldest president.
“I keep looking for angles and different ways to look at this race,” Funt said.
Some columnists, such as E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post (syndicated by Washington Post Writers Group), reject the notion that the analysis that columnists offer is being overlooked in the modern media environment.
“There is a broad range of material on the Web,” Dionne said. “There is a lot of immediacy, but there are a lot of analysts that take public policy very seriously. The forms are merging more and more, because all newspapers are on the Web too, and looking for a Web audience.”
The expansion of online news sources offers readers more freedom in where they choose to get their news, but it also threatens to diminish standards and drive people to what they want to read, rather than what they should read.
“When you had three major networks and newspapers, there was much more of a filter and control from certain people who imagined themselves as being responsible,” said Rich Lowry, editor of National Review and a syndicated columnist at King Features. “There’s been such a proliferation of news that there are many more ways to find information about this race than ever before. I think that is really the tension.”
Whether it’s an explosion of news coverage or an increased interest in the personalities in the race, many would agree that these primary races feel longer and longer. Some suggest the media has played a pivotal role in the increasing length of primary season, making the role that columnists play that much more vital to educating and informing readers.
“It’s a marathon, and the media has made it a marathon,” said James Hill, managing editor of Washington Post Writers Group. “The race has basically been pushed back a year before the general election, and there has really been a lot of action to cover since June.”
“I think I’m a believer in the process,” Lowry said. “On the one hand, I think the races have gotten so nasty and brutal, there is more of a tendency to keep the more normal candidates out. On the other hand, if you’re going to be president, there’s obviously a lot of pressure, so if you can’t run the gauntlet, it’s a pretty telling statement about being president.”
For Funt, the length of the campaign isn’t the issue; it’s whether journalists have done a good-enough job educating the public on not only the important issues we face, but which candidate might be the best to take them head on.
“I hope for the sake of the country this intrigue translates into a good result,” he said. “It’s frightening to think Americans could view presidential politics as just another reality TV show.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher magazine and edits the satirical humor magazine Delaware Punchline. He can be reached at email@example.com.