How to Be a Political Journalist in America

Eric Alterman's top 20 rules no mainstream political journalist should ever forget when covering an election.

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This year is my 30th year as a journalist, my 20th as an author of books about journalism, and my 10th or so year as a professor of its history. Due to this longevity if nothing else—together with the fact that I spend a lot of my time with young people who aspire to be journalists in the future—I find myself frequently asked if I can provide any rules that journalists should live by, so as to help those entering the field from making unnecessary or easily predictable mistakes.

To spare myself some time, and to share my hard-earned wisdom with those whom I will never get a chance to counsel, I’ve come up with the following list of the top 20 rules that no aspiring American mainstream political journalist should ever forget. I should add that nothing on this list should be construed as relating to any particular candidate, or the coverage he or she has received in the 2012 presidential election. And I should further add that if my cynicism seems at times too biting, then chalk it up to 30 years trying to persuade the mainstream media not to give unwarranted “equal weight” to whatever conservatives demand.

Rules for covering a political campaign

How to be a successful American mainstream political reporter—the big ones never to be forgotten

  • Politics is all theater—never probe about policy unless it enhances the performance.
  • Personality always trumps policy—see above.
  • History is bunk—factual history, that is, because it interferes with the make-believe history so integral to political theater.
  • Science is bunk—see above.
  • Social and political science are even bunkier

What to remember when covering a major political event, such as a debate

  • The candidate who appears more “energetic” wins, period.
  • How a candidate makes you “feel” is more important than what he or she actually says.
  • What a candidate said yesterday is irrelevant. What he or she is saying now is what matters because nobody was paying attention before, and if they were, they won’t remember it anyway.
  • Elections are not run for fact checkers; debates even less so. (And conventions? Don’t get me started.)
  • Policy details are for nerds and little magazines.

General rules for survival regarding attacks

  • If a conservative charges the government with participating in a conspiracy of any sort, regardless of how outlandish it sounds, treat it as a serious possibility, requiring additional investigation.
  • If conservatives consistently complain about “bias” in the media, then the “perception” is just as important (if not more so) than the reality. Grant the legitimacy of the argument and promise to try to do better in the future.
  • If a liberal complains, he or she is “whining” and can be safely ignored.
  • Fox News is a “news” channel.
  • Old stories that were thoroughly reported and vetted in a previous election were not actually reported and vetted if they did not succeed in provoking the “outrage” that conservatives think they should have, and so should be reported and vetted a second (or third, or fourth) time.

Underlying ideological assumptions about politics and economics are not to be questioned

  • America was built exclusively by businessmen. There is no such thing as “labor.”
  • All wealth is deserved. So, too, is poverty, homelessness, and hunger, especially among children.
  • Taxes depress incentives, which depress incomes, which depress tax revenue, so it’s best not to tax people except those without lobbyists.
  • All government spending is wasteful except military spending.
  • Money is speech and should not be restricted in any way—even when it’s being spent to spread false information that benefits the person or corporate entity paying for its dissemination.

And finally, keep this last rule in mind at all times as it must underlie all others: “The system works.” Question the efficacy of that one, and you might as well make your parents happy and go to law school. Good luck, everybody.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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