The press might get better at vetting presidential candidates

The presidential election will be held in 2024, but 2023 will be the year the leading candidates likely emerge, as the field — potentially an open one in both parties for the fourth time in the last seven campaigns — is winnowed. It will therefore also be the year in which we learn if the press has finally learned important lessons from its disastrous performance in the last campaign with two open nominations, the 2016 race.

It was in 2015, in the run-up to that contest, that political journalism managed to simultaneously treat Donald Trump’s bid for power as a Roman circus while obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s emails. I hope we can do better eight years later. How?

First is to do real reporting about who the candidates actually are. There is no other press vetting that can or should approximate that which eventually occurs for presidents. But it would be much better for the country if the vetting was done before candidates are nominated by a major party, much less before they take office. For instance, Maggie Haberman’s book Confidence Man is an illuminating look at Donald Trump, especially its first half on his pre-2015 business career — but we should collectively hang our heads in shame that so much of it feels fresh, particularly when contrasted to how little Trump’s carefully crafted entrepreneurial myth was exploded before he was elected.

The watchwords of the political press, for this purpose as so many others, might be what John Mitchell — Richard Nixon’s law partner, attorney general, campaign manager, and criminal co-conspirator — urged: “Watch what we do, not what we say.”

This is especially true of people who have had executive responsibility of any kind before seeking the presidency. What impact has Ron DeSantis really had on the lives of Floridians? What sort of governor was Mike Pence in Indiana? What difference has Kamala Harris made as vice president? (In each of these cases, how do these executive records contrast with their earlier votes as legislators?) How effective has Pete Buttigieg been as secretary of transportation? More on these questions and less on “messaging” and the early horse race could really make a difference for voters.

There’s a critical balance to be struck here. On the one hand, it is almost always a mistake to let candidates set the journalism agenda. Their incentives are to direct attention to easy questions (and easy promises) and away from harder questions and choices. On the other, in seizing on concerns we uncover, it’s critical to make sure they are important as well as merely novel. It remains a sad episode that Secretary Clinton’s emails received more attention for the server on which they resided than for what they said about how she had done in her job.

Let’s also try in the early campaign year ahead, as we always should, to weigh the motivations of our sources in evaluating stories to which we devote investigative resources. Those motivations are almost never a reason to forego publication, but they may help us better understand how important a story should be to voters, and thus how it should be framed. In short, “let’s be careful out there.”

Dick Tofel is the principal of Gallatin Advisory LLC and was founding general manager of ProPublica.

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