This is, by far, the most exciting presidential election since I began paying attention to politics about ten years ago. Part of what I find most interesting about this race is the strong pushback by independent media and bloggers against the national press corp. and how that pack portrays the campaigns and recent primaries to the public.
Media critics have long held that the way national politics is portrayed by the modern media does a disservice to the public and muddles the functioning of our country. Journalist James Fallows did one of the best jobs of this in his 1997 book, “Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.”
In Fallows’s pre-Internet tome, he hammers the media for the “horse race” style of coverage in which so many engage. We’ve seen much of this in primary debates already, where pundits shout over each other to dissect who “won” a debate based on such credentials as snappy sound bites, facial tics, hair styles, and the ability to tear another candidate down and get some laughs with a well-placed one liner.
The emphasis is on who is winning and their tactics – like covering a sports contest. But, unlike presidents, baseball players don’t directly affect the lives of millions of Americans.
This kind of coverage fails to assess whether any of the claims made by candidates are actually true. Who really cut taxes? How do you figure out how many jobs a candidate created? How does that even work? Does that candidate really have an illegal immigrant trimming the hedges of their multi-million dollar estate? Are those statistics about health care valid?
Vetting candidates’ claims requires substantial research. It’s the kind of work we in the media business like to refer to as “reporting,” and it’s not something you can turn around twenty minutes after a debate. To their credit, many national news organizations have taken such criticism after the 2000 and 2004 elections to heart, and many post a “Truth-checker” or similarly named feature the morning after a debate to determine the validity of claims.
But, according to many media critics, the national political press corp. still suffer from a myriad of deep flaws, including the insistence on making predictions about the outcome of primaries and the respective strengths or missteps of candidates – predictions that this wild race has overturned again and again – even at this early stage.
One of the most vocal and passionate critics of the national media is blogger Glenn Greenwald of the liberal online magazine Salon.com. Day after day, Greenwald hammers the downright incorrect and useless nature of campaign stories written by the top political reporters in the country. For weeks now, he has been documenting how some of the front-running status granted John McCain and Barack Obama derives from how much political reporters on the trail enjoy hanging out with these guys, compared to Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton.
For a considerably more raw take on the faults of the national press corp., check out Rolling Stone correspondent Matt Taibbi’s take from this interview with CampusProgress.org:
“A lot of them are Ivy Leaguers, they all come from a certain class. And you can’t be on the campaign trail unless you work for a massively funded organization. It costs like 3,000 or 4,000 bucks a day to cover the presidential election, just to be on the plane. Some big money has to be behind you. The group of people who end up being on the bus are a group of upper-class people who are all from the same general background, and they’re familiar and comfortable with each other and they’re comfortable with the candidates culturally. They’re living the high life when they’re on the trail, they’re mostly staying in five-star hotels. They get these delicious catered meals served to them four or five times a day. You get chocolates on your pillow, you get the best musicians in the city coming out to play for you everywhere you go. It’s like a big summer camp, like a big field trip.
“For these people, with the proximity to power, being able to
sit in an airplane with Hillary Clinton or with John Kerry or John Edwards or Barack Obama—that’s like the sexiest thing they’re ever going to be involved with. And it’s a lot of fun for these people. It’s intoxicating.”
I’m not sure I completely buy Taibbi’s take on the press – covering national politics is very difficult. It’s easy to criticize the press and there’s no shortage of people willing to do so, but my point is this: What I see happening in this election is a kind of humbling on the “mainstream” media’s part. This criticism from independent media is altering things in ways often intangible but noticeable. It’s a weird introspection and hesitancy that I believe, and hope, will lead to coverage that is more useful for average citizens. With luck, voters will continue to prove the foregone conclusions of so many journalists wrong.
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