Never have so many done so much to reveal so little than in the collected journalism about presidential nomination contests. The personality-driven trivia. The hokey generalizations. The bogs of conventional wisdom. The day-by-day scorekeeping that ends up worse than uninformative; it is anti-informative. (Just ask Presidents George Romney, Edmund Muskie, Scoop Jackson, John Connally, Richard Gephardt, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.) The utter failure to inform the public of the actual, on-the-ground dynamics of the nuts-and-bolts process by which the parties chose their standard-bearers, and the larger dynamics that drive party trends from decade to decade.
And, last but not least, the shameful lack of any useful contribution to a richer public understanding of what any of this means for the future of the republic at large. Consider, to take an example close to hand, the saga of the $80,000 boat.
On June 9, The New York Times ran a useful, detailed consideration of the finances of Marco Rubio. Publicly, the Florida senator describes his everyman’s struggle to “finally pay off his law school loans.” Privately, according to state records unearthed by the paper’s Steve Eder and Michael Barbaro, he spent “$80,000 for a luxury speedboat.”
The detail revealed a larger pattern: Rubio has been financially in the hole for nearly his entire adult life. The reason this mattered, noted the Times—whose work on Rubio has been a welcome exception to the rule of bad campaign reporting—was that it “has made him unusually reliant on a campaign donor, Norman Braman, a billionaire who has subsidized Mr. Rubio’s job as a college instructor, hired him as a lawyer, and continues to employ his wife.”
These details were explained in the Times a month earlier. The same two reporters described the 82-year-old Braman, an almost comically plutocratic figure who sells Rolls Royces and Bugattis for a living, and almost singlehandedly recalled Miami’s mayor. Braman, who implored the Times reporters, “I don’t consider myself a fat cat. Don’t make me out to be a fat cat,” has been able to call the tune for the 44-year-old Rubio.
Then came Politico’s bubble-headed media reporter Dylan Byers with a scoop: Rubio’s “luxury speedboat” was “in fact, an offshore fishing boat.” Speedboats, you see, are for rich swells; fishing boats, even ones costing almost $100,000, are for jes’ folks.
Immediately, this supposed error became the shiny bouncing ball the political media decided to chase.
Politico covered Boatgate eight times over the next two weeks—Byers twice in two consecutive days. They didn’t mention Braman once. (They had mentioned him in May—in scorekeeping mode, as the “Miami auto dealer who’s expected to pour anywhere from $10 million to $25 million into [Rubio’s] bid.”) The Washington Post also featured little but nautically inclined reporting on Rubio in that same period, seven pieces mentioning the boat including one fact checking Jon Stewart and another headlined “Mr. Rubio, Like a Lot of Americans, Is Terrible With Money.” (Not, say, “Mr. Rubio, Like a Lot of Americans, Has a Surrogate Father Who Loans Him Rides on His Private Jet.”) The neocons at The Weekly Standard summed things up for the historical record: The Times’ “failed hit on Marco Rubio’s fishing boat” proved “Rubio is [the] GOP frontrunner.” End of story.
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