In light of this post, it seems appropriate to mention that Wednesday’s Democratic debate turned out to be the apotheosis of mindless, ignorant political journalism. I only caught the last 45 minutes, so I didn’t see the really egregious stuff at the beginning. But even some of the policy questions were bad — i.e. Charlie Gibson channeling Grover Norquist and trying to get the candidates to agree to a no-tax pledge — and from all accounts the rest was a joke as well. (Update: Crooks and Liars has video of the more inane questions.)
There’s been a ton of response to the debate around the blogosphere. Andrew Sullivan has roundups here and here, and a good post of his own. James Fallows weighs in from China with an important post that includes an excerpt from his 1996 article, “Why Americans Hate the Media”:
When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public’s representatives, asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with Presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about.
In the same vein, anyone interested in this topic should read Matthew Yglesias’ December Washington Monthly piece on how NBC’s Tim Russert is the driving force behind this kind of political coverage.
The one good thing about the debate is that it was such a monumental debacle — even Tom Shales, the Washington Post’s TV critic, called it “shoddy” and “despicable,” — that the backlash might finally be strong enough to keep this conversation going and (one can dream) eventually spark some changes.
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.
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I recently wrote a plea to scrap the absurd, undemocratic primary process we’ve seen this year. The New Republic has an editorial in the current issue calling for the same, with the added bonus of actually suggesting an alternative:
The Republicans can do whatever they like, but Democrats should adopt a simple, fair system for the next election cycle. Superdelegates ought to be eliminated, and each state’s delegates awarded to candidates in proportion to their share of the statewide vote. As we have previously recommended, the states should be organized into a system of rotating regional primaries to end their self-defeating contest to leapfrog each other on the calendar.
Democrats have long crusaded against Republican efforts to constrict democracy by limiting participation in elections. It would be nice if the party lodging these complaints did a better job of living up to its own principles.
Something is seriously screwed up in the way Americans vote for their presidential nominees.
Whether it’s because this campaign is a tight race for the first time in a while or something else, the byzantine ins and outs of the American election system have never been clearer and more frustrating than they are in 2008.
We’ve seen the two parties ridiculously kowtowing to Iowa and New Hampshire by stripping Florida and Michigan of delegates for leap-frogging those early states’ votes (and Hillary Clinton’s equally ridiculous, retroactive attempt to claim those delegates despite having already agreed to said kowtowing). And Barack Obama getting more delegates in Nevada than Clinton despite getting a smaller share of the vote. And the odd prevalence of caucuses. And Louisiana’s weird rules negating Mike Huckabee’s win on Saturday. And Texas’ upcoming primary/caucus hybrid. And the inexplicable “superdelegates.” And news of 49,500 ballots in Los Angeles County that can’t be counted because they were too confusing and were marked incorrectly. (This is all separate from the GOP’s usual obsession with voter ID laws, “voter fraud,” and other attempts to generally suppress voting.) Continue reading →