Less on politics, more on how government works (or doesn’t)

“Readers would be better served by less on the politics of how the government is being run and more on its actual running.”

Most of these predictions are really prescriptions, and this time I’m not going to pretend otherwise. What I hope we can have in 2021 is more coverage of the effectiveness of the federal government.

As we look back for the lessons of the last four crazy years, I think we can probably agree that one subject that didn’t get enough attention is how poor a job of administering the Trump administration did.

  • The signature promise of Trump’s 2016 campaign was building a wall along the Mexican border. That border stretches 1,954 miles; in four years in office, they will have built new wall along 9 miles (less than one half of one percent), and replaced old walls along 441 other miles. Fully 72 percent of the border remains as wall-less as it was.
  • Trump’s one boast about the pandemic is that he “banned” travel from China in February. But the “ban” didn’t apply to 40,000 Americans and others who returned after it was imposed. And by limiting the “ban” to China, it seems very likely in retrospect that JFK airport became a superspreader Ground Zero in mid-March as people poured in from Europe.
  • The early and repeated failures on developing and distributing tests, at the CDC and elsewhere, were probably the key failure of the initial governmental response to the crisis.
  • Withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement has, by common consent, left Iran closer to producing nuclear weapons, as has Trump’s flurry of visits and “love letters” with respect to North Korean ICBMs.

Whether anyone favored or opposed these policies, this is quite a record of execution from the executive branch, a sad report for the first Wharton graduate to become president. It’s not, of course, that these subjects weren’t covered — but we’d be kidding ourselves if we said they were the focus of coverage of these issues.

Of course, such problems didn’t begin and won’t end with Trump. George W. Bush’s most important policy decision as president was seriously undermined politically by his administration’s failure to adequately provide body armor and other protection to troops he had ordered deployed. And Barack Obama’s greatest achievement in office was nearly undone by the disastrous initial online rollout of the health care exchanges (can’t wait to see what he says about that in Volume 2!).

Looking ahead to a Biden presidency, what does this mean? I would suggest the following:

  • Readers would be better served by less on the politics of how the government is being run and more on its actual running.
  • For instance, what really is the state of readiness for vaccine distribution? The parts of Operation Warp Speed that sent companies big checks for vaccine development and signed big contracts to buy doses were easy as an administrative matter. Assurances that those shots will actually go into arms are starting to sound like the pollyannaish noises we heard for months earlier this year about testing. This is a critical story, and the press should dig in, nationally and locally. Then, no matter how the Trumpers leave things, how well and how quickly can Biden and his team make further progress?
  • To take another example, if there is an infrastructure bill in 2021, running fewer of the easier stories on conflicts of interest and more of the harder ones on whether stuff is actually being built would be a useful corrective.

Reporting on such things is harder than covering tweets or relaying the complaints of this or that politician or group. It takes time, patience, and a genuine willingness to again set the news agenda in newsrooms and in response to what readers care about, rather than to have those we cover set the agenda for us. But the outcome of more reporting on the work of government would get us closer in the best sense to journalism as the first rough draft of history, and would provide a truer measure of accountability.

Richard J. Tofel is president of ProPublica.

Most of these predictions are really prescriptions, and this time I’m not going to pretend otherwise. What I hope we can have in 2021 is more coverage of the effectiveness of the federal government.

As we look back for the lessons of the last four crazy years, I think we can probably agree that one subject that didn’t get enough attention is how poor a job of administering the Trump administration did.

  • The signature promise of Trump’s 2016 campaign was building a wall along the Mexican border. That border stretches 1,954 miles; in four years in office, they will have built new wall along 9 miles (less than one half of one percent), and replaced old walls along 441 other miles. Fully 72 percent of the border remains as wall-less as it was.
  • Trump’s one boast about the pandemic is that he “banned” travel from China in February. But the “ban” didn’t apply to 40,000 Americans and others who returned after it was imposed. And by limiting the “ban” to China, it seems very likely in retrospect that JFK airport became a superspreader Ground Zero in mid-March as people poured in from Europe.
  • The early and repeated failures on developing and distributing tests, at the CDC and elsewhere, were probably the key failure of the initial governmental response to the crisis.
  • Withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement has, by common consent, left Iran closer to producing nuclear weapons, as has Trump’s flurry of visits and “love letters” with respect to North Korean ICBMs.

Whether anyone favored or opposed these policies, this is quite a record of execution from the executive branch, a sad report for the first Wharton graduate to become president. It’s not, of course, that these subjects weren’t covered — but we’d be kidding ourselves if we said they were the focus of coverage of these issues.

Of course, such problems didn’t begin and won’t end with Trump. George W. Bush’s most important policy decision as president was seriously undermined politically by his administration’s failure to adequately provide body armor and other protection to troops he had ordered deployed. And Barack Obama’s greatest achievement in office was nearly undone by the disastrous initial online rollout of the health care exchanges (can’t wait to see what he says about that in Volume 2!).

Looking ahead to a Biden presidency, what does this mean? I would suggest the following:

  • Readers would be better served by less on the politics of how the government is being run and more on its actual running.
  • For instance, what really is the state of readiness for vaccine distribution? The parts of Operation Warp Speed that sent companies big checks for vaccine development and signed big contracts to buy doses were easy as an administrative matter. Assurances that those shots will actually go into arms are starting to sound like the pollyannaish noises we heard for months earlier this year about testing. This is a critical story, and the press should dig in, nationally and locally. Then, no matter how the Trumpers leave things, how well and how quickly can Biden and his team make further progress?
  • To take another example, if there is an infrastructure bill in 2021, running fewer of the easier stories on conflicts of interest and more of the harder ones on whether stuff is actually being built would be a useful corrective.

Reporting on such things is harder than covering tweets or relaying the complaints of this or that politician or group. It takes time, patience, and a genuine willingness to again set the news agenda in newsrooms and in response to what readers care about, rather than to have those we cover set the agenda for us. But the outcome of more reporting on the work of government would get us closer in the best sense to journalism as the first rough draft of history, and would provide a truer measure of accountability.

Richard J. Tofel is president of ProPublica.

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