Political Reporting and the Phenomenon of Andrew Yang

What does it say about our journalism that someone with essentially no relevant experience led the New York City mayoral race for months?

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

In his 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, historian Daniel Boorstin defined a “celebrity” as “a person who is known for his well-knownness.” For most of the first half of this year, it looked like the nation’s largest city was about to elect such a person as its mayor. What does this tell us about the perils of political journalism in our time?

As the New York City Democratic mayoral primary (tantamount to election in a city where Biden defeated Trump 76%-23%) grinds slowly to a final count, one thing which has been certain for weeks is that Andrew Yang lost. Yang, long the frontrunner until a few weeks before the voting, conceded as much on Primary Night, after placing a distant fourth in first-choice voting in the City’s new ranked choice system. Nevertheless, Yang received nearly 115,000 first-choice votes, running ahead of candidates with significant records in holding citywide and federal office.

Last year, Yang did, in a sense, even better, placing ninth among candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, garnering 166,000 votes, and finishing admittedly behind Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, but ahead of contenders who never made it to the initial voting—such as Kamala Harris.

Someone who can run credibly for president of the United States and then lead a race for mayor of a world city must have quite a record, if not in politics or the military, then surely in business, right? Actually, no.

Yang grew up in a middle class town in Westchester, and was a strong student, attending Exeter, Brown and Columbia Law School. He spent a few months as an associate at “white shoe” law firm Davis Polk, and left to co-found a company that aimed to help celebrities fund-raise for charities, only to have it fail. Then he worked in party-hosting, health care and a test prep company founded by a friend that he ended up running and selling to Kaplan, netting a seven figure nest egg for himself. Finally, he founded a nonprofit called Venture for America that aimed to create 100,000 jobs for young people and was celebrated by the Obama White House, but actually produced only 150 jobs. Along the way, he wrote two books (without noting the part about the 150 jobs).

That’s it.

As for devotion to New York City, he and his family spent most of the early pandemic outside it at their suburban second home, and he had never before voted in a mayoral election during 25 years living in the city. He was registered to vote but had just not bothered in the last four mayoral elections. (Disclosure: I too spent Spring and Summer 2020 mostly at a second home out of town, but I’ve voted in every mayoral election since 1977, and I don’t think I’m qualified to be mayor.)  Yang’s own effective campaign manager described him to a reporter as an “empty vessel” in local politics.

Having said that, I come here not to bury Andrew Yang, but to raise an issue about the press.

How in the world have we come to the point where someone with no evident qualifications or relevant experience can be taken seriously as a candidate for multiple high offices? You may say that Trump’s election literally proves that anyone can be elected to anything. But that’s not true. Trump was a notorious if not entirely successful businessman, a best-selling author, a highly-rated TV star. Most of all, he was taken seriously by voters before he was taken seriously by the press, leading the Republican primary polls from the moment he announced his candidacy in July 2015. If Andrew Yang represents the lesson political reporters learned from the rise of Trump, they over-learned it.

Falling for “the narrative”

What seems to have been the problem, in retrospect, was journalists’ repeated susceptibility to Yang’s glib storylines (political reporters call these “narratives”)—youngish entrepreneur, Cassandra of the robot economy, champion of universal basic income—and their willingness to simply overlook the fact that he was running for jobs as a political chief executive without much experience either in politics or even as a chief executive.

Eventually, of course, the voters of New York caught on. And the pivotal moment came, I think, with a really solid piece of journalism, the New York Times’s dissection of the 100,000 missing youth jobs. The money quote, from a former staffer:

“Andrew comes up with these grand ideas, and he loves to obsess about them and talk about how great they are, but he doesn’t think through all the details.” 

Not quite what you might want in the gritty job of mayor. But this piece wasn’t published until May 1, just five weeks before voting began for the primary.

Why it matters

Well, you might say, he ultimately lost, what of it?  For one thing, the months focused on Yang was time not given to scrutinizing the other candidates, including, until the campaign’s final, frantic weeks, the primary winner and presumptive next mayor, Eric Adams. New Yorkers may regret, in 2022 and beyond, that their press corps spent so much time in early 2021 distracted by a candidate of what Boorstin might have termed mere “celebrity.”

For the rest of you, indeed for all of us, Andrew Yang should serve as a different sort of reminder, of one of the lessons we should be drawing from Donald Trump. Politics, for voters, for citizens, is ultimately not a game. People can and do get helped or hurt, lives are saved or lost, institutions thrive or decline. For those reasons, politics shouldn’t be treated as a game by journalists whose job it is to help voters choose. There is simply too much at stake.

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