“When I was covering Michael Bloomberg’s first race for mayor, I asked a tabloid reporter who I knew if he thought Bloomberg would be a good mayor,” Mark Halperin was telling Off the Record over the phone on Nov. 27. “And he looked at me as if I had said, did I think Bloomberg was from Venus. Because it wasn’t a question that he would have factored in as he covered Bloomberg’s quest for the office.”
Mr. Halperin, a political analyst for Time and ABC News, offered the anecdote by way of explaining his belief that political journalism focuses too much on process, and not enough on substance. His new book, The Undecided Voters’ Guide to the Next President, published last month by HarperCollins and pitched to ordinary voters looking to make an informed choice between the 2008 candidates, represents an effort to change that dynamic.
“I’ve always felt that we did a disservice to voters and the public,” said Mr. Halperin, “by filling the news hole with too much horse race and not enough information to let them make a decision on who the best president would be.”
Hard to argue with that. But to some, Mr. Halperin—a 42-year-old Washington, D.C., native and political junkie who nonetheless has long lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—is an unlikely messenger for the cause. While running ABC News’ political coverage, Mr. Halperin made his name as the driving force behind The Note—a daily online political tip sheet that the Republican strategist Mary Matalin once described as “Skull and Bones for the political class.” During the 2004 campaign, The Note did perhaps more than any other news source to elevate the process of politics over the substance, and even to invest that process with a kind of knowing, insider glamour. Today he runs a similar site, The Page, for Time magazine.
In the past, Mr. Halperin has celebrated his approach to campaign coverage. “It’s like with the movies,” he told The New Yorker for a 2004 profile that touted him as the most influential political journalist in the country. “The behind-the-scenes details, the box office totals, who’s the producer. With politics, people are interested in process and personality.” He also judged that “The Note can function on at least two levels—something for insiders and something for hyper-insiders.”
But in an Op-Ed published last Sunday, Nov. 25, in The New York Times, Mr. Halperin signaled something of an about-face, and even seemed to sound a note of contrition. “Voters are bombarded with information about which contender has ‘what it takes’ to be the best candidate,” he wrote. “Who can mount the wiliest counterattack? Whose life makes for the neatest story?” But, he wrote, “the ‘campaigner equals leader’ formula that inspired me and so many others in the news media is flawed.”
Though Mr. Halperin didn’t quite come out and say it, the implication was clear: The kind of horse-race coverage he elevated to an art form was, as Jon Stewart might put it, “hurting America.”
The mea culpa was met with withering scorn by many commentators who had long seen Mr. Halperin as one of the chief proponents of the type of coverage he now seemed to be rejecting. Noam Scheiber, a veteran New Republic reporter and blogger, called it “jaw-dropping.” And Alex Massie, another well-read Washington journalist and blogger, wrote: “To read this preposterous column, you might think that Halperin was but an innocent bystander rather than a major player in a media climate he did as much to foster as anyone else.”
Speaking to Off the Record, Mr. Halperin argued that there’s no need for reporters to choose between providing horse-race coverage for plugged-in political junkies who demand it, and more substantive fare for ordinary voters. “I’d like to provide all the content,” he said.
But was it possible to do both, without helping to perpetuate a state of affairs that he admits does voters a disservice?
“To the extent that by churning out [horse-race coverage], I am participating in, and reaffirming, the imbalance that I think exists, I plead guilty,” Mr. Halperin allowed.
“But I’m only one man. And I can’t aspire to walk away from the kind of coverage I enjoy, and am also, I think, good at. And for which there is an existing audience that helps pay the bills.
“I’m not able to change the orientation of every major news organization,” he continued. “All I can do is to try and be a content provider across many platforms, and to say, ‘Read my book, watch C-Span, but also read The Page.’
“The book,” he added, “is my way of, if not doing penance, at least helping voters answer the more important question about who the best president would be.”