Wednesday, October 31, 2007

PEJ Study: Big Media "tabloidizes" US political journalism

I recently blamed punditry for much of what's wrong with American politics. I decried how the US public tends to read polls and columns to make positioning calculations. Political coverage is confined to candidates with "star quality". Instead of issues, policy, and analysis, we get the tabloidization of American political journalism. Would John Edwards beat Guiliani? Can Hillary Clinton win the center? Can Obama keep the black vote while courting a "white" center? Tragically for America, decisions based on who might "win" rather than who is right or best qualified almost always result in the election of candidates that are neither right nor qualified.

Now --I've got a hard study to back me up. It's by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
In the early months of the 2008 presidential campaign, the media had already winnowed the race to mostly five candidates and offered Americans relatively little information about their records or what they would do if elected, according to a comprehensive new study of the election coverage across the media.
The study has the hard numbers to back up a summary conclusion:
In all, 63% of the campaign stories focused on political and tactical aspects of the campaign. That is nearly four times the number of stories about the personal backgrounds of the candidates (17%) or the candidates’ ideas and policy proposals (15%). And just 1% of stories examined the candidates’ records or past public performance, the study found.
Nor is the media without bias. Some candidates can't seem to buy favorable coverage. Others -like Barack Obama and Fred Thompson -seem to be enjoying a honeymoon.
The press also gave some candidates measurably more favorable coverage than others. Democrat Barack Obama, the junior Senator from Illinois, enjoyed by far the most positive treatment of the major candidates during the first five months of the year—followed closely by Fred Thompson, the actor who at the time was only considering running. Arizona Senator John McCain received the most negative coverage—much worse than his main GOP rivals.
I suppose that just proves how out of touch I am. I have yet to hear Obama say anything that was not obviously vetted, coached and rehearsed. As for Thompson --ah well! What can one say about an ugly mug and uglier political philosophy? I might as well shout at a wall. Big Media has already decided that Thompson, the least attractive candidate in any party, is, nevertheless "Presidential" material. How bloody absurd!
The press’ focus on fundraising, tactics and polling is even more evident if one looks at how stories were framed rather than the topic of the story. Just 12% of stories examined were presented in a way that explained how citizens might be affected by the election, while nearly nine-out-of-ten stories (86%) focused on matters that largely impacted only the parties and the candidates. Those numbers, incidentally, match almost exactly the campaign-centric orientation of coverage found on the eve of the primaries eight years ago.
The public, however, shares my sense of disaffection and outrage. The Pew Research Center for People and the Press reports that the public is just as fed up with this evil system as am I. Seventy-seven percent against 17 percent want more coverage of issues and less punditry, bullshit and claptrap. Fifty-seven percent want real debates. Only 42 percent want more news about which candidate is leading in the poll du jour while fifty five percent want more news about candidates that are not deemed by big media to be "front-runners". Among other findings from the PEJ-Shorenstein study:

  • Just five candidates have been the focus of more than half of all the coverage. Hillary Clinton received the most (17% of stories), though she can thank the overwhelming and largely negative attention of conservative talk radio hosts for much of the edge in total volume. Barack Obama was next (14%), with Republicans Giuliani, McCain, and Romney measurably behind (9% and 7% and 5% respectively). As for the rest of the pack, Elizabeth Edwards, a candidate spouse, received more attention than 10 of them, and nearly as much as her husband.
  • Democrats generally got more coverage than Republicans, (49% of stories vs. 31%.) One reason was that major Democratic candidates began announcing their candidacies a month earlier than key Republicans, but that alone does not fully explain the discrepancy.
  • Overall, Democrats also have received more positive coverage than Republicans (35% of stories vs. 26%), while Republicans received more negative coverage than Democrats (35% vs. 26%). For both parties, a plurality of stories, 39%, were neutral or balanced.
  • Most of that difference in tone, however, can be attributed to the friendly coverage of Obama (47% positive) and the critical coverage of McCain (just 12% positive.) When those two candidates are removed from the field, the tone of coverage for the two parties is virtually identical.
  • There were also distinct coverage differences in different media. Newspapers were more positive than other media about Democrats and more citizen-oriented in framing stories. Talk radio was more negative about almost every candidate than any other outlet. Network television was more focused than other media on the personal backgrounds of candidates. For all sectors, however, strategy and horse race were front and center.
Democrats might be excused for seeming to acquiesce in this tabloidization of political coverage. It was not so long ago that Democrats couldn't buy a good story. Still, media fixation with every aspect of politics but issues is evidence of insidious media cynicism, an entrenched belief that Americans will not read or understand a story unless is has star quality and celebrity in it.

There is nothing democratic about a system inherently biased in favor of the "superstars" of big media --Obama, Clinton, Thomspon, Guiliani. There is nothing democratic about a system in which candidates like Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich are discounted out of hand, not because they are not strong on issues but because they haven't gotten benediction from the poohbahs of big media. There is nothing democratic or fair about a system that discounts your preference because you are not or have not read the poohbahs du jour!

I recently endorsed Mike Gravel because Mike has an impeccable record in the US Senate and because his position is real and absolutely right. Sadly, last time I checked, Democratic "procedure", was freezing Gravel out of what passes for "debate". Fortunately, I can still support Kucinich but resent having to make decisions based on a "political reality" that ought NOT to be a "political reality".

Why can't we have a system in which one may vote one's conscience? Why must we have a system in which one worries about "wasting" one's vote on a third party candidate who may be the best in the field. Why can't we abandon the absurd electoral college? Why can't we select the eventual winner based upon national totals via a Borda count, a range vote or some other system that has been shown to better and more accurately reflect the will of the "people".

A better system will encourage a richer field, especially if the reforms should coincide with the abolition of the absurdly long and boring system of primaries. If elections had been conducted on a more scientific basis, George W. Bush could not have stolen the White House --even with help from DieBold. There is much literature available about alternative voting systems. The science dates back, at least, to the 18th Century. Google "range voting", "Borda Count", "alternative voting systems". You'll get plenty of reading material.

It's bad enough that my votes are stolen by DieBold. It's bad enough that the US Supreme Court would presume to anoint a phony President with a creative, "Alice in Wonderland" interpretation of the 14th Amendment. It is bad enough that candidates are bought and paid for because the very expense of a campaign militates against those who may be most qualified. But a system about which it is accurately charged that by supporting either candidate, my vote is wasted is absolutely intolerable. As long as this evil status quo is maintained and supported, America will continue to get --not the brightest and best --but the slick, the bought and the paid for.


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