The 1,440-Minute Cycle

Is there a dirtier phrase in politics than "the media"? Some days it's hard to see why you hate us—"you" being liberals, conservatives, candidates and all other carbon-based life forms. There's as much good journalism getting done now as, say, 40 years ago. But other days, I get it. Take Nov. 20, 2007. At 9 a.m., Barack Obama launched a comprehensive education plan at a Manchester, N.H., high school; an hour later he told students that he "got into drinking," "experimented with drugs" and "wasted a lot of time" as a teenager. Obama had already written about his wayward youth. But the press perked up. "That's going to be the story of the day," said one reporter. By noon, OBAMA ON PAST SUBSTANCE ABUSE was atop the Drudge Report. Education, to say the least, was not.

This is the first presidential election to move at the speed of the Internet. After years of dismissing bloggers as peanut galleryists in pajamas, every major media outlet is requiring reporters to provide a daily play-by-play at its in-house blog. (Me? Guilty as charged.) Meaning we're now stuck with a 1,440-minute news cycle. In theory, that's dandy (no hiding); in practice, it totally skews the signal-to-noise ratio. While the demand for campaign news has exploded, the supply hasn't. (Did more really "happen" in 2007 than 2003, or 1983, or 1923?) To fill the void, reporters resort to the tiny blips, slips and digits that constitute the "horse race." And candidates, desperate for attention, provide the grist.

No wonder you're mad. Three weeks after Obama's appearance in Manchester, Carolyn Washburn, editor of The Des Moines Register, launched her newspaper's Republican debate by saying, "We're going to focus on issues Iowans say they still want to know more about." When the roster didn't include Iraq or immigration, the pundits pounced. "The worst debate in Western history," said Charles Krauthammer. And yet Washburn delivered: taxes, education, global warming and trade. There were no snowmen, no slapfests. The 1,440/7 media emerged empty-handed. Iowans emerged informed. Who did a better job? We report. You decide.