Aug 1 2007

Why People Hate Politics

Blame journalism that isn't

A presidential campaign starting many months early isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With a crowded field of candidates in both parties and no clear frontrunners, there could be ample time to discuss major policy differences on Iraq, healthcare and the like.

But the early primary season has instead seen reporters fixated on campaign fundraising and the price one candidate paid for a haircut. Rather than welcoming a wide-ranging debate, many pundits have complained about the “lesser” candidates mucking up the television debates (Extra!, 7-8/07).

And the public doesn’t seem exactly revved up for the early election season. a July 9 New York Times report declared, “In dozens of interviews across the country, voters said the presidential campaign had become much too intense, much too soon.”

It’s a safe bet that the way the press covers the White House race has considerable effect on voters’ feelings. Since the media coverage of a presidential campaign often bears so little resemblance to what the public might want to know about candidates’ positions, one can reasonably conclude that the point of campaign journalism is not to engage the public in the political process; indeed, it’s the exact opposite.

A July 8 journalists’ roundtable on CBS‘s Face the Nation provided a useful example, with host Jim Axelrod asking questions that steered the discussion away from anything of substance. Of campaign appearances by Hillary and Bill Clinton, Axlerod asked one guest: “How did it seem to you, the energy level, the whole show? How was the package out there?” Moments later, he asked another: “Did you see the Clinton campaign pulling Bill Clinton out this early as a real sign of worry?”

The panel then was asked if John McCain’s campaign’s financial troubles were “the beginning of a death spiral,” if Democrat Barack Obama was “ready for prime time” and whether he could “convert” his fundraising success “to the polls.” When talked turned to possible Republican contender Fred Thompson, viewers heard that he “continues to flirt, but he won’t make a date here.”

Such treatment is hardly unusual. After a firefighters’ group released a video harshly critical of Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani’s record on 9/11, NBC‘s Meet the Press convened a panel (7/15/07) to assess the strategic response by Giuliani’s campaign. Whether or not the critique of a leading candidate’s defining issue was actually true was hardly worth a mention.

After George W. Bush decided to commute the sentence of key administration official I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, many reporters found Bush’s predecessor’s record just as interesting as Bush’s bizarre self-justification. Washington Post reporter Anne Kornblut explained on Meet the Press (7/8/07) that Hillary Clinton’s criticism of the Libby commutation was all the spark the media needed:

When Hillary Clinton came out and said that in Des Moines, everyone was sort of–their eyebrows raised, and looked at one another, and the next day she instantly got questions from reporters about it…. It does really point to the double-edged sword of her campaigning with Bill Clinton, for one, and also looking back to the Clinton administration as part of her campaign strategy. He not only pardoned Marc Rich, he pardoned dozens of other people at the very end of his term. And rather than talking about her campaigning in Iowa, we were talking about his pardons and the downside of his administration, rather than the upside, which is what they wanted to talk about.

It’s hard to imagine that many voters are interested in the Marc Rich pardon; if anything, there’s a stronger journalistic justification to compare Bush’s commutation with his father’s Iran-Contra pardons (Extra!, 3/93). And even if one accepts the notion that the Rich pardon was a sleazy gift to someone connected to a big donor, it bears little resemblance to absolving a key member of your administration from his crimes covering up your own bad behavior.

Little of what passes for campaign journalism has much to do with campaigning (politicians sharing their ideas with the public) or journalism (the analysis of those ideas). Campaign reporters seem more interested in handicapping a race among frontrunners, whether by obsessively citing poll figures or poring over fundraising reports. Knowing who’s “leading” months before the first vote is cast is of little value to voters, but it does help journalists marginalize “fringe” candidates who smuggle unauthorized ideas into the campaign.

Thus, when GOP candidate Ron Paul appeared on ABC‘s This Week, any chance of discussing policy had to wait until after host George Stephanopoulos declared Paul’s campaign a waste of time:

STEPHANOPOULOS: What’s success for you in this campaign?

PAUL: Well, to win.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But that’s not going to happen.

PAUL: Well you want to bet every cent in your pocket for that?