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February 20, 2013 11:03 AM Substance, Style, and Knowing the Difference

By Jonathan Bernstein

I finally got to the NYT Style section from Sunday, and spotted this gem:

The fabric of politics has always been gossip and jokes and crazy personality stuff and memes,” he said, a little angrily. “I mean, Dukakis in the tank, that’s a meme. Political coverage that wants to be solely high-minded is missing huge chunks of the actual interplay of personality and power that is what actually drives things.

He in this case being Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith.

Look: it’s really, really okay to cover “gossip and jokes and crazy personality stuff and memes.” That stuff is fun to read! I love a lot of it!

But don’t feel that you have to justify it by saying that it “actually drives things” when it doesn’t. Dukakis in a tank didn’t “actually drive things,” other than a bit of press coverage that voters paid no attention to. To bring us up to date: etch-a-sketch didn’t actually drive things, nor did…ah, I think that John Sides had a list of them, but I can’t find it just now.

Granted, there’s some “high-minded” stuff that doesn’t drive things either! But that’s okay, too.

Reporters: it’s totally fine for you to cover the fun parts of politics. You’re telling your readers and viewers interesting stories; that’s fine — and at least from my perspective, much better than turning yourselves into glorified local news reporters (weather! murders! cruise ship mishaps!). All you have to do to keep me and others from being cranky is to stop claiming more for your stories than they can support.

Both the style and the substance of politics are worthwhile subjects for reporters. Just don’t confuse them. Okay?

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
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