By Jefferson Flanders

When Americans cast their votes for president in November, how well informed will they be about the candidates and the issues? Their level of knowledge will reflect, in some measure, the performance of news organizations and journalists covering the Long Campaign of 2008.

Here, from this observer’s vantage point, is a brief critique of Campaign 2008’s news coverage so far, with the positive, the negative, and yet to be addressed coverage questions.

CAMPAIGN COVERAGE POSITIVES:

Coverage of the issues. Academics, media critics, and public interest groups have long attacked mainstream news organizations for sacrificing coverage of public policy issues (the broccoli of the political process) in favor of horse-race or personality coverage (the sugary, unhealthy dessert). That hasn’t been the case in this campaign. Along with the reporting of candidate gaffes and campaign tactics, the mainstream media has more than adequately covered the positions of the presidential candidates on key issues.

The nation’s elite newspapers (the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) have explored the candidate’s policy positions in depth, and their websites offer even more detailed comparisons. While the broadcast and cable networks have served up less issues coverage, the websites of CNN and Fox News do carry pertinent information on the candidates’ positions.

And prospective voters who don’t know by now that Senators Obama and Clinton plan a rapid American withdrawal from Iraq and Senator McCain favors staying the course, or that the Democrats endorse greater government intervention in health care and Republicans counter with market-driven solutions, aren’t paying attention.

The reality, however, as Steven Stark of the Boston Phoenix recently pointed out, is that most American presidential elections aren’t “big issue” driven, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Those surprisingly informative debates. While it’s true that a skilled debater may or may not make a proficient president (as Daniel Boorstin argued in The Image in 1961 after the Kennedy-Nixon Great Debate), debates can help voters looking for a better sense of a candidate. The numerous 2008 primary season debates, organized and moderated by major news organizations, contributed positively to the winnowing-out process.

Mike Huckabee’s folksy debate performances spurred his surprising rise early in the Republican campaign. The debates highlighted the kookiness of Ron Paul, Mike Gravel, and Alan Keyes (although Keyes’ inclusion by the Des Moines Register in its GOP Iowa debate was questionable.)

The two most interesting debates, both on the Democratic side, were held in Philadelphia. In the first, Hillary Clinton’s waffling on the question of then New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to grant driver’s license for illegal immigrants raised questions about her inevitability. In the second, held just before the Pennsylvania primary, Obama looked ill-at-ease as he struggled with tough questions from Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos over Bittergate and his connections with his controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Weather Underground figure William Ayers. Obama’s faltering performance caused some wags to ask if the Illinois Senator struggles with the Gibson-Stephanopoulos duo, how he will respond to the Ahmadinejads and Hugo Chavezs of the world? Not surprisingly, Obama ducked any further one-on-one debates with Clinton.

Questions of character and vetting the candidate’s past. Yes, a presidential candidate’s past, including his or her associations, and character, should matter and to the extent their past touches on those questions, it’s journalistic fair game. That John McCain is surrounded by former and current lobbyists while declaring his independence from special interests matters; thanks largely to reporting from the New York Times, voters have learned about this contradiction. That Barack Obama spent 20 years in a church whose pastor espoused black liberation theology and spouted anti-American rhetoric matters; thanks largely to initial reporting from Brian Ross at ABC News, voters know about it.

CAMPAIGN COVERAGE NEGATIVES:

Journalistic Obamania. Campaign 2008 has also featured the unprecedented spectacle of journalists openly favoring a candidate, Sen. Obama, a phenomenon aptly mocked by Saturday Night Live. There’s NBC reporter Lee Cowan who admitted “it’s almost hard to remain objective” and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews confessing to “a thrill up my leg” after an Obama speech. Clinton supporters Lanny Davis and Terry McAuliffe even lauded Fox News, the cable news network detested by the Democratic Left, as the most “fair and balanced” in its primary coverage; McAuliffe claimed the media was “in the tank for Obama”, adding that “every independent study has said that this is the most biased coverage they’ve ever seen in a presidential campaign.”

It actually hasn’t been that bad. A recent survey by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University suggests that “the dominant personal narratives in the media about Obama and Clinton were almost identical in tone, and were both twice as positive as negative, according to the study, which examined the coverage of the candidates’ character, history, leadership and appeal—apart from the electoral results and the tactics of their campaigns.” Of course this study covered the first months of 2008, where much of the most over-the-top Obama media-fawning took place in late 2007 and early 2008. The Pew researchers concede: “The year 2008 started off extremely well for Obama. Positive assertions commanded 77% of the narrative studied about him from January 1 -13.” That, of course, Clinton supporters would note, is when such cheerleading mattered most in the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire.

Misleading polls. Why news organizations place any credence in opinion polling remains a mystery. This campaign season has exposed the weakness of relying on polling, especially exit polls, as they were consistently wrong in projecting the winner’s margin in the Democratic primaries, most likely because of the Shy Tory Factor (voters refusing to participate in the exit polling). Further, the appeal of Obama for younger and African-American voters, and Clinton for older, working-class women—groups with spotty voter participation histories—has wreaked havoc with turnout models.

Predicting, not reporting. Who hasn’t been annoyed by the “talking heads” need to predict? In the fall of 2007, we were told that Clinton and former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani were the inevitable nominees, that Senators McCain and Obama were long-shots. Then, after pronouncing Clinton dead, conventional media wisdom was proved wrong when the New York Senator ran off a string of primary victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. NBC’s Tom Brokaw had it right on the night of the New Hampshire primary when he warned: “I think that the people out there are going to begin to make judgments about us if we don’t begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding….”

UNADDRESSED COVERAGE QUESTIONS:

How will coverage of Campaign 2008 change in the months ahead? The race between Senators Obama and McCain will be hailed as an historic one: the first time an African-American has been a major party’s nominee for the presidency. There is the danger that the mainstream media’s coverage will focus on race (“Will Americans vote for a black candidate? Is America ready for diversity in the White House?”) and that will represent a journalistic failure.

There are sharp distinctions between the candidates on the major issues (foreign policy, Iraq, the economy, health care, judicial philosophy, social issues); voters have plenty of reasons to vote for, or against, the candidates without any reference to race. The question should not be whether Americans are ready to vote for a black presidential candidate, but rather whether they are ready to vote for a charismatic presidential candidate whose philosophy and positions are further to the left than any Democratic standard-bearer since George McGovern. If it is true that the political center has shifted leftward, then they may very well elect the Senator from Illinois.

A wildcard for the remainder of Campaign 2008: the impact of quasi-news coverage from comedians, bloggers, YouTubers, Huffington Puffers, and other alternate media sources. Political historians will have their hands full trying to figure out whether, or how much, voters were swayed by the sudden blooming of a thousand alternative media flowers (and a few media weeds) in this 2008 election season.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

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