- - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Curiosity, not ideology, is the mark of the best reporters, but with the disappearance of tough editors reporters are allowed to be pundits, and it shows. The best reporters are on the scout for “the story.” The early story of the 2016 presidential campaign is the emergence of two unlikely, unusual and off-brand candidates, and how the reporters treat them.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have turned the young season upside down, with off-the-wall remarks that earlier would have dispatched the likely, the usual and the name-brand candidates to oblivion. How the newspapers and television networks have covered this phenomenon says as much about the reporters (and correspondents, as the networks call their reporters) as about the two candidates themselves.

Mr. Trump is questioned closely, as he should be, about ungallant remarks about women, harsh descriptions of his rivals and dismissive talk about immigrants from Latin America, and he never fails to make big news. Mr. Sanders, not so much. The senator usually gets polite questions more suited to a forum of the League of Lady-like Voters than a candidate on the presidential hustings. If reporters don’t rough up candidates they’re not doing their jobs. But different treatment was on stark display last weekend when the two candidates showed up on the “Sunday shows.” Mr. Trump was grilled about his remarks and views on immigration and defense. Mr. Sanders was asked about how he can sustain his momentum driven by the large, warm crowds. Where was Megyn Kelly when the occasion needed her?

With Democratic concerns about Hillary Clinton growing hourly, the grumpy self-proclaimed socialist deserves closer scrutiny. Some of his remarks have been wacky and weird, just like the Donald’s. This man of science and learning once suggested, for example, that cervical cancer is caused not by a virus, but because women are not getting enough orgasms. No one embarrasses him about that one, though the Donald is asked, over and over, about his disrespect for Rosie O’Donnell.

Mr. Trump is said to get his defense briefings from Fox News, and Bernie’s foreign policy expertise was gained from years of watching role models from the old Soviet Empire, Fidel Castro in Cuba and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua. This is a diploma rarely touched on by interviewers and pundits, but surely the voters deserve a little of the “follow-up” we hear the reporters and correspondents forever demanding.

Good follow-up is what distinguishes good reporting from bad. CNN’s Jake Tapper, a distinguished fellow of the cathode tube, asked Mr. Sanders the other day about reports that he might favor a 90 percent income-tax rate. He replied that he had never said that, but he thinks taxes for “the wealthy” should be increased “substantially.” Mr. Tapper didn’t follow up with the crucial question of what the candidate means by “substantially.”

A Republican candidate who suggests that the United States should spend more on defense invites question after question about how such spending should be paid for — good questions all — and when Mr. Sanders suggests extending Medicare to everyone, raising Social Security benefits, spending $1 trillion on public works and providing “free” preschool training and a “free” college education for everyone who graduates from high school, he is subjected not to follow-up but indulged merely a rant about “the wealthy” and how they don’t pay their fair share.

Mr. Sanders gets questions about his hair but not his politics. A little more focus on who the senator really is and a little less on the size of his crowds, noteworthy as that may be, and the reporters and correspondents would actually learn a thing or two, and they could pass it on.

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