MEDIA BRANDS: Political reporting by newspapers needs to offer substance to compete in election year

It would be an understatement to say that a lot has happened to Dick Cheney over the past two years. Until early last month, that was the amount of time that had elapsed since he'd sat down for an interview with a major newspaper. But if the media's depiction of him during that time span is to be believed, all he's done is cultivate the image of a potent, powerful behind-the-scenes figure.

It would be an understatement to say that a lot has happened to Dick Cheney over the past two years. Until early last month, that was the amount of time that had elapsed since he'd sat down for an interview with a major newspaper. But if the media's depiction of him during that time span is to be believed, all he's done is cultivate the image of a potent, powerful behind-the-scenes figure.

A pair of stories that ran in the January 19 editions of the LA Times and USA Today captured this conventional wisdom - the journalistic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel - but not much else. In fact, the interviews are more notable for what they didn't address, namely the concerns that have been swirling around his relationship with Halliburton, a company once helmed by Cheney that is now being investigated for its lucrative Pentagon contracts. Image, after all, is what the articles are all about. Both are more concerned with the role Cheney will play in the general election than what he's done in office. Said the Times, "Cheney is emerging to take on an increasingly public role - partly as an emissary to the party's conservative base and partly to argue before a wider audience that the Bush administration has the wisdom and experience to navigate an increasingly dangerous world." Covering roughly the same ground, USA Today dealt with his "reluctance to campaign." Neither article sheds any light on the Halliburton affair, which, as the subject of an official investigation, is fair game in an interview and a matter of crucial importance to the credibility of this administration, regardless of what you think about Cheney's role in the matter. There's not even a shred of evidence on the printed page that tough questions were asked - no suggestion that he declined to answer anything, no explanation of some agreement that prohibited that line of questioning. The result is a gap that renders useless reporting that otherwise could have been enlightening to readers. Presumably, the defense would be that these articles are political journalism, focusing entirely on Cheney's role in Bush's reelection. While there is nothing unethical about this, such a tack clearly wastes a golden opportunity since, by their own accounts, this administration's key officials accept requests for interviews infrequently and grudgingly. Severing politics from substance, especially in a 24-hour news cycle with bloggers parsing every word, calls into doubt the ability of even the farthest-reaching newspapers to provide the kind of deep perspective that makes them stand out from the instant gratification of faster, flashier competitors, such as cable news outlets. In a broader sense, the articles' approach points out a weakness in how political journalists do their job. Detaching form from substance sells readers short and further cements a system obsessed with image and appearance, one that political journalists regularly bemoan. -matthew.creamer@prweek.com

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