Brendan Nyhan explores how campaign coverage reinforces already-constructed narrative

February 18, 2019

Authenticity has become political currency, most heavily traded during the run-up to a presidential election. Journalists watch the every move of candidates, looking for signs of being in-or-out of touch. For Professor Brendan Nyhan, this is a worrisome distraction that detracts from substantive reporting. In his February 12, 2019, piece on titled “A Politician’s Authenticity Doesn’t Matter,” Nyhan critiques the growing norm of focusing on a political candidate’s relatability rather than rationality.

Nyhan says this search for authenticity is nothing new: from George W. Bush’s ability to charm the public into thinking he was a charismatic cowboy to the nitpicking of Hillary Clinton’s efforts “to put her character and personality on display...largely deemed a contrived marketing campaign,” Nyhan tracks the successes and failures of candidates to get with the people. His marks his focus for the piece, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s supposed error over the appropriate way to eat fried chicken, as “just the latest entry in the growing pantheon of political food gaffes,” which he says “centers on manufactured narratives about a candidate’s personality.”

“It is all too easy to get trapped in what I’ve called the authenticity doom loop,” Nyhan states, defining it as “a pattern in which attempts to showcase a candidate’s authenticity are taken as proof of the opposite.” Nyhan goes on to say that such hyperfocus on small interactions don’t tell us anything factual about a candidate’s platform or ability to run. To him, they are simply a way for those covering the campaign trail to “amplify a few cherry-picked anecdotes to reinforce a narrative they have already constructed.”

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Brendan Nyhan is a professor of public policy at the Ford School. Nyhan also serves as the co-founder of Bright Line Watch and is a 2018 Carnegie Fellow.