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The early 20th-century newspaper editor H.L. Mencken loved covering American presidential campaigns, but dismissed the journalism they produced as “paltry” and “worthless.” Such cynicism has never gone out of style. Perhaps no form of journalism has been more maligned than campaign reporting, and yet no form is as talked-about or well-read. Americans love to hate election coverage. What kind of campaign reporting serves our democracy, and what sort of political journalism undermines it? How have the methods of reporting presidential contests changed over the course of history, and what is different now, in 2020—a year that was going to be unprecedented even before a global pandemic got involved?
Two journalists who covered presidential campaigns in different eras—NPR To the Point host, Warren Olney, and Zócalo California editor, Joe Mathews—consider what campaign journalism means to the country right now, and how to make it more useful.