Political journalism’s policy ignorance

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about the pointlessness of the “Is the media finally getting tough on Barack Obama” meme. The gist would have been that the media’s “getting tough” on Obama — just like the media’s alleged “Obama bias” — had zero to do with policy and everything to do with personality, image, and media meta-narratives. Likewise the media’s alleged bias against Hillary Clinton has nothing to do with her policy proposals.

Furthermore, the near-total focus on these sorts of things to the exclusion of policy shows the general shallowness of newspaper political journalism, especially campaign journalism. There are many reasons for this, starting with objectivity conventions, which give reporters little reason to read white papers, policy proposals, scholarly books, etc. Whereas writers for New Republic, Atlantic, Slate et. al. are a) not bound by “objectivity” strictures and b) well-versed in policy.

Sure, there are some campaign moments that do give insight into a candidate’s policy considerations or say something genuinely noteworthy about their personality. Hillary Clinton’s attacks on Obama that perfectly dovetail with Republican attacks betray her willingness to put personal ambition ahead of the party. Obama’s devotion to progressive policy goals looks suspect when he attacks Clinton’s health care proposal via mailers that follow the same script as Republican mailers that played a major role in defeating the Clintons’ ’90s health-care reform. John McCain’s ignorance about any any number of issues portends a certain kind of detached presidency.

But for the most part, the nature of political coverage in newspapers, mainstream newsmagazines, and TV news makes the whole discussion about “media bias” in the context of the Democratic race essentially meaningless.

Anyway, since I’ll probably never get around to writing that full post, I wanted to point out two must-read pieces that do a great job of puncturing the bubble in which this political coverage takes place.

First, Ezra Klein gets at the essential silliness of the “controversy” over Obama’s recent remarks on why working-class voters might not vote for him or Democrats — remarks that, while poorly phrased, were squarely in the mainstream of Democratic discussion:

But let’s be clear: It’s not damaging because we think it foretells him doing something harmful to the country. It’s not damaging because it suggests his policy agenda is poorly conceived, or his priorities are awry. If you think of policy and politics as two circles in a Venn diagram, this is damage that only exists in the politics circle, and doesn’t even come close to the area of intersection. We reporters have to cover it, of course, because it’s Really Important, and matters more than the housing plans of all the candidates put together. But it matters in a completely self-referential way, it matters only because it matters, not because it means anything about Obama, or illuminates anything about his potential presidency. It’s a hollow scandal. …

I love the Venn diagram image. It perfectly captures why these sorts of flareups are pointless. No wonder so many people tune out politics and political news.

The second great piece is a Slate essay by Troy Patterson about the dismal state of political satire and how it reflects the shallowness of mainstream political coverage. Patterson quotes University of Iowa professor Russell L. Peterson’s new book, Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke, to describe how late-night jokes

“rarely transcend the level of pure ad hominem mockery.” They’re personality jokes and, as such, of a piece with character-based journalistic narratives that “treat newsmakers not as the subjects of newscasts but as the news’ cast.”

Patterson also nicely calls out Saturday Night Live on its satire-free political satire:

Rumors of SNL’s rebirth have been greatly exaggerated. … SNL has twice devoted sketches to the idea that debate moderators, as members of an Obama-besotted media, have given the Illinois senator an easy go of it in his one-on-one debates with Hillary Clinton. But the only jokes were in the impersonations (Amy Poehler’s schoolmarm nodding as Hillary, Fred Armisen’s catching Obama’s professor-preacher cadence) and in the hyperbole (CNN’s Soledad O’Brien so hot and bothered that she fans herself). The joke never develops beyond its premise. We all already know that the media is in the tank for Obama because we read it in the papers. SNL might have tried to turn these sketches into jokes about why this is the case — Is it about race? Celebrity? The hunger for a new narrative? — or it could have wondered about the relationship between this adoration and Obama’s oft-reported aloofness from reporters. It did not.

Likewise, Tina Fey’s editorial in support of Hillary as a guest on “Weekend Update” was not a political statement. She might have cut at the press or at Obama. What she did, instead, was to identify herself and her candidates as “bitches.” I can’t dispute Fey’s point that “bitches get stuff done,” but I will argue that the entire joke falls apart without the frisson of that word — a shock tactic that Sarah Silverman must have outgrown before her first period.

This is why the the stories saying “OMG SNL is totally sticking it to the media for sucking up to Obama!!!” were so annoying. Policy-ignorant, image-obsessed political reporters were praising a policy-ignorant, image-obsessed satirical show for calling them out on — what exactly? Focusing on one candidate’s image over the other’s? Not ignoring both candidates’ policy positions enough? Spending too much time on one candidate’s meaningless campaign minutiae? Talk about the blind (and unfunny) leading the blind (and even less funny).

It all pretty much makes my brain hurt.

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6 responses to “Political journalism’s policy ignorance

  1. I would argue that all of this goes back to Walter Lippmann and his version of journalism — be objective and just report what sources tell you.

    This form of journalism totally removes from the reporter any responsibility for being informed.

    Reporters need not study up on policy, because it’s only their job to transcribe what candidates say. They need learn just enough to formulate a question that will elicit an answer — it doesn’t even have to be a good question.

    When reporters are free of the responsibility of having a discloseable point of view (let’s face, they all have a POV, even if they don’t disclose it), and are not responsible through better informing the public by bringing some studious intelligence to their reporting, then the only thing they can do is gab about trivial issues, or themselves.

  2. Lipmaaaaan! [said like Dave on Alvin and the Chipmunks]

    But yeah, it’s such a strange notion of objectivity. To me, being objective actually means being honestly subjective: presenting all the relevant facts — facts and knowledge that a reporter has gathered via, as you put it, studious intelligence and primary sources rather than by getting one quote from an interpreter on each “side” of the issue — as well as your best understanding of those facts.

    Yes, that understanding/conclusion will show a point of view — but if you have been honest and thorough, that’s okay.

    Much better to show that you thoroughly understand an issue and have a take on it than to continually serve up ignorant, meaningless trivia.

    But of all the traditions of newspaper journalism that need to change, the objectivity obsession — especially in the context of political coverage — may be the most ingrained and toughest to dislodge.

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