Friday :: Jun 20, 2003

How the Media is Ruining Democracy

by Steve

Jim Kimbler, a reader of this blog, forwarded to me a great essay and analysis of his about the media's coverage of politics that I want to print here verbatim. Look this over and let Jim know what you think about it in the Comments section. It is copyrighted, so let Jim know at if you wish to use this.

Beginning with the publication of Making of the President-1960, political reporting has changed its focus. No longer do political writers focus on a candidate’s policies or programs. Instead they focus on what are sometimes referred to as “character” issues, such as did the candidate lie about something, or they focus on the mechanics of getting elected, as opposed to what policies and/or programs the candidate will push or develop. The argument is that so called “character” issues tell us more about what a candidate will do than his or her policies and/or programs. The argument is that a candidate may or may not really believe what he or she is saying, but their character, unlike their motives, cannot be so easily hidden

This trend has the benefit for the writer of being much easier. Why, for example, try to master an issue like health care when you can write about whether a candidate “sighed” too loud during a debate, or why write about income tax policy when you can write about whether a candidate claimed that he and his wife were the main characters in a popular novel written during the early seventies?

It also benefits a candidate who is high in emotional quotient, “E.Q.”, especially if he is high in “E.Q.’ and not particularly high in intelligence quotient, or “I.Q.” He or she doesn’t have to worry about knowing the issues; all the candidate has to worry about is “bonding” with the political reporters who are covering the campaign. Once such bonding has taken place, they will write the stories with a bias, which they may not even realize exists.

An example of this is the recent Bush v. Gore campaign, where reporters seemed to go out of their way to pummel Gore, while praising and, more importantly, not critically examining his opponent. Bush gave the reporters cute nicknames Gore bored them with policy. Bush bonded with them Gore angered them by being so “unauthentic.” The coverage of the debates wasn’t about which candidate advocated what policy; it was about who sighed and who didn’t.

Of course while this style of campaign coverage is good for the media, especially those who aren’t too bright, or who are lazy; and while it is good for a certain kind of candidate, especially one who shares the aforementioned characteristics, there is no evidence that it is good for the voters, or even that it is what they want. In fact there is plenty of empirical evidence that they don’t care about such “character” issues, and ignore them.

Think about how many times the media told Bill Clinton he was “toast.” I often say to friends that in 1992 the media collectively told Bill Clinton “Bill, you’re a draft dodging, pot smoking, skirt chasing, son of a bitch” and Clinton’s response was “What’s your point?” He didn’t back out of the race, kept talking about his issues, and he won two elections. He did the same thing during the 1998 impeachment drama, and, once again, kept the support of the American people. Time and time again during the Clinton administration the media told the American people that Clinton’s character was rotten, and time and time again, the voters, like Clinton, asked, “What’s your point?”

The public realizes it is hiring a candidate to do a job, one it doesn’t particularly want to do, but one it realizes needs to be done. They want to know what policies and programs the candidate will try to push; they don’t really care whether he inhaled some illegal substance a whole generation ago or whether he cheats on his wife or whether he sighs too loudly during a debate.

You would think the media would realize this, be humbled by their constant misreading of the American voters during presidential elections, (anyone remember the supposed Bush landslide that was predicted?), but you would be wrong. Like so many generals they keep fighting the last war over and over, even in the face of evidence that tactics should change.

That’s where we come in. Don’t berate the media for being biased, they don’t realize it and they aren’t going to realize it. If you don’t believe me, just look at the book reviews that are being written by the New York Times and the Washington Post for The Clinton Wars or Living History. Instead start to insist now that the media quit writing and covering these so called character issues and start reporting on the policies and programs of the candidates. Tell them it is time to start giving the voters the information they want so they can make an informed choice. Tell them to stop playing psychologist and start practicing the craft of old fashioned journalism. All of us, including the media, will be better for it.

Jim Kimbler,
2003, all rights reserved. Use with permission.

Steve :: 5:18 PM :: Comments (5) :: Digg It!