In recent decades, the news media have shown increasing attraction to style over substance. Under the cover of journalism, endless discussions have pumped up the public discourse with evaluations of candidates as theatrical performers rather than policy advocates.
But the current presidential race has brought us to a new journalistic low. The media fascination with story angles seems to be inversely proportional to their substance.
For instance, the attentive news consumer knows far more about Hillary Clinton’s quest to seem likable than about her position on nuclear weapons. We hear far more astute punditry about whether she projects an image of caring than about her eagerness to keep the profit-driven insurance industry at the center of the country’s health care.
The welling of tears in Clinton’s eyes that occurred on the eve of the New Hampshire primary was the subject of relentless election-night discussion on national television. Unspoken and unsung, there was a tacit theme of her purported breakthrough moment that tracked with a well-known oldie: “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.”
A key dynamic is circular: Major news outlets fixate on particular images and repeat them endlessly. Then — when those recurring media images have impacts on Election Day — followup news accounts cite the images as very important to voters.
The morning before the New Hampshire election, media outlets swooned when Sen. Clinton showed some emotion in response to a voter’s question. Again and again, during the day and into the night, video of those moments saturated the TV airwaves. It’s plausible that the saturation had a significant effect on ballot totals.
After the polls closed and returns came in, pundits swiftly gravitated to the incident as pivotal. Lost in the media discussion was the choice made by media outlets to obsess about those seconds of video in the first place.
Style has become a fixation of political journalists. If there are important policy differences between Clinton and her remaining opponents for the Democratic presidential nomination, you’d hardly know it from the vast bulk of the news coverage.
Between the media critiques of style and the incessant “horseracing” analysis from journalists, you might think the candidates were ballet dancers or thoroughbreds in a stretch drive rather than people in the running to become president of the United States.
Behaving so much like drama critics who must keep evaluating on-stage performances, most political journalists have become accustomed to looking for — and, in fact, largely concocting — simplistic storylines. Along the way, there is often a remarkable eagerness for the media to winnow the field well before voters have actually done so.
Early this month, a lot of journalists in the national media were declaring the imminent arrival of cinched nominations. Some — after the Iowa caucuses and before the New Hampshire primary — even made it sound like Barack Obama had already gained a virtual lock on the Democratic nomination.
Looking ahead, with much of the country scheduled to cast ballots in early February, we would be well advised to ignore the media prognostications as much as possible. The tones of certainty from big-name journalists have been appreciable, but they’ve been dwarfed by the magnitude of inaccurate predictions.
Often, the political journalism seems locked into a mode almost indistinguishable from cliche-ridden sports reporting. Descriptions of previous games bleed into predictions about the next ones.
And the so-called quality media are apt to be just as inclined toward “horseracing” as less pretentious outlets. Mark Shields and David Brooks, the in-house commentators on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, frequently seem more like racetrack handicappers than journalists concerned with policy substance.
Yes, the rhetorical flourishes and sound-bite moments can be exciting and captivating. But we’ve seen what happens to a government when it’s run by people with stirring rhetoric that is often disconnected from human realities.