2016 candidates are making their way onto the campaign trail, and political reporters are close behind them. So how will the media talk about presidential hopefuls who probably won't win? Likely, a lot. David Leonhardt of the New York Times cautions against giving them too much attention.
BOB: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. 2016 horse race coverage got underway this week, with reporters galloping after Hillary Clinton’s campaign-mobile.
MAN 1: You can see the media running behind me here to chase the Scooby van..
MAN 2:The guy in the orange pants is pretty quick!
As HBO’s John Oliver noted, this week’s much-anticipated and over-analyzed video announcing Clinton’s official candidacy showed a heap of Americans just like you...and one who was definitely aiming to be…
OLIVER: I’ll save you the time of watching this video. It’s 2 minutes, 18 seconds long. It features one dog, one cat, and exactly four relevant words.
CLINTON: I’m running for President
OLIVER: That’s it. There is nothing else to see and nothing else to talk about. Because, let me be clear: Speculating over who is going to win the 2016 now is like speculating over who is going to win the shot put at the 2016 Olympics. The only thing we know for sure is that Ted Cruz isn’t going to win either.
That’s a bit categorical, wouldn’t you say? But that won’t stop the media from pursuing Ted Cruz, at’s what they do. How, then, to rein in the unbridled enthusiasm of the political press? When the junior Senator from Texas announced his candidacy two weeks ago, David Leonhardt, who edits The Upshot for The New York Times wrote that it’s the duty of sites like his to point out when a candidate just isn’t going to win.
LEONHARDT: If what you care about is who is going to be president: Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio are in by far the strongest position. That is what people in politics are actually talking about, that is what what people in media are talking about in their own newsrooms. If what you care about is who is going to be president: Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio are in by far the strongest position. That is what people in politics are actually talking about, that is what what people in media are talking about in their own newsrooms. I don't want the media saying "well readers actually we can't trust you with that information, we don't want you to know what historians and political scientists and pollsters say about what we already know about this election." I want some of my coverage to be honest in that way, and that is what we're aspiring to do.
BROOKE: Do you worry about the ultimate chicken and the egg question: can you have a candidate without media attention? Even if the media can't make a candidate win, can they, by ignoring a candidate, ensure that they'll lose?
LEONHARDT: I think history argues really strongly against that. Voters have many chances to make decisions about candidates parties have many chances about who they put forward and who they don't. And i don't think the media can squash out a candidacy by paying too little attention it. If democrats really want Martin O'Malley to be the nominee, they can start telling pollsters and they can start showing in different ways that they're excited about Martin O'Malley.
BROOKE: But you're ignoring what seems to be some received wisdom that people aren't going to know anything about Martin O'Malley unless he is covered to begin with.
LEONHARDT: Yes, but if you think about the history here, we in the media have showered attention on unlikely candidates, showered attention on people like Michele Bachmann, on people like Dennis Kucinich, right? None of those fringe candidates have ever emerged to get the nomination.
BROOKE: At this point in the campaign, when Clinton was running for the first time, he seemed unlikely to win. Would the Upshot have declared Clinton an un-winnable candidate?
LEONHARDT: I mean, it's easy with the benefit of hindsight, but Bill Clinton would have been a candidate who we would have said had a serious chance of winning that nomination. Particularly because there was no strong front runner. The Republican field in 2016 is vastly stronger than the Democratic field was in 1992. In many ways Marco Rubio is the most similar candidate to Bill Clinton: young, promising politician, who will need to come from some amount of obscurity in order to win the nomination.
BROOKE: The horse race fundamentally is easy to write about compared to actually using these candidates as kind of political pack animals to talk about issues. I mean, even if Cruz is a long shot, maybe he has an issue that needs to be aired. You could use him that way.
LEONHARDT: There are certainly ways in which candidates like Cruz can really affect the debate in ways that do matter. So again, as a reader, I want stories about Ted Cruz and about his announcement. I also want stories telling me that hey you know he doesn't have nearly as good a chance as a series of other people. And even if you say look, there aren't 10 republicans with a chance of winning the nomination, there are 3 or 4, that still leaves you with a vast array of really fascinating stories. It lets you in the press cover the real battle that's going on among Walker, Bush, and Rubio, to get the nomination.
BROOKE: Covering so many election cycles as I have from a sort of meta-media point of view, I don't mean to oppress you with what sounds like a primal scream, but everything is stacked up to talk about money and perception. And that's it. That is it. It never gets more than a nano particle deep into actually what ails our political system.
LEONHARDT:Well, one of the reasons why i actually am in favor of making these distinctions i I would much rather read stories that distinguish between the tax policies of the candidates who actually have a serious chance of winning than I would yet another story about a candidate like Ben Carson who has virtually no chance of winning.
BROOKE: But you won't read those stories Because they won't be written!
LEONHARDT:Oh no they will, we will write them. We will do those stories, as well as the other stories. One of the great benefits of modern media is the upside fpof the cacophony. That if all you ever wanted to read was stories analyzing the policy positions of the candidates, you could do that.
BROOKE: You were talking about journalists using their judgement. You've likened it to covering extreme weather?
LEONHARDT:Rather than saying either "we're gonna forecast a 10 inch snowstorm" or we're gonna tell you it's not gonna snow, i think it's more honest to say to people there's a much better chance that it's gonna snow in New york then there's a chance that it's gonna snow in California. And i liken that to where we are in politics. There's a vastly, vastly higher chance that the nominee will be Jeb Bush, Scott Walker or Marco Rubio than that it will be Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, or Rand Paul. And I think that saying that to readers, without going so far as to saying there is no scenario under any situation no matter what, in which the nominee will be someone other than Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, is a way to level with readers and to be honest with them about what we know and what we don't know.
BROOKE: David thank you very much.
LEONHARDT:Thank you for having me.
BROOKE: David Leonhardt is the editor of the Upshot, the news and data analysis website from the New York Times.