Why Our National Press Corps Is Failing
the Public Abysmally
You want a serious debate about the issues? Good luck!
It’s hard to imagine a greater irony than our political press, obsessed as it is with process stories, dubiously sourced rumors and trivial fluff, lamenting the fact that we can’t have a “serious national debate.”
Consider what may be the funniest lede in this cycle so far: “The elevated presidential campaign of ideas, fleetingly achieved after months of mudslinging, died Tuesday,” wrote Reid Epstein. “It was three days old.” Epstein went on to catalog all of the mean things the two campaigns were saying about each other, as if this is an election year or something.
But what makes that so hilarious is that Eptein’s piece appeared in Politico exactly two days after the rag ran a piece titled, “Forget the budget: Paul Ryan is hot!,” and just two days before a penetrating analysis headlined, “Fit for office: Candidates in best shape ever.” (Politico is also slapping together a quickie e-book about how the Obama campaign is “roiled in turmoil,” which is just a campaign classic that never gets stale.)
We can’t have serious debates in this country because we don’t have a news media that offers us serious debates. Rather than dig into candidates’ claims, we get he-said/she-said drivel and doses of whatever conventional wisdom is flying around the Beltway – we get dueling campaign “narratives” rather than a serious look at issues of substance, which seem to bore most campaign reporters.
That has long been the case, but we appear to have entered a new environment, one that Dave Roberts of Grist described as an era of “post-truth politics” – “a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation).” The Romney-Ryan campaign appears to have embraced this reality, running a campaign that is unprecedented in its mendacity. While reporters and fact-checkers can — and do — highlight the inaccuracies of specific claims, it’s beyond the reach of mainstream journalism to point out the pattern for fear of appearing “biased.”
Consider a few examples of how our feckless fourth estate has performed during this cycle. We have Paul Ryan constantly being referred to as both a “serious” person, and a “fiscal conservative.” In a fawning profile, the New York Times, which conservatives liken to Pravda, told its readers that Ryan “has become a particular favorite of — and powerful influence on — the intellectuals, economists, writers and policy makers who are at the heart of Washington’s conservative establishment.” The piece characterized him as “an earnestly interested, tactically minded policy thinker, with a deep knowledge of budget numbers.”
That image is based entirely on the conventional wisdom, but it’s also divorced from objective reality. The New York Times is the same paper that employs Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who pointed out that over the course of a decade, Ryan’s Roadmap would cut $1.7 trillion in public spending, whils slashing taxes, mostly on high earners, to the tune of $4.3 trillion, and would this increase the deficit by a tune of $2.6 trillion. “And this is what passes inside the Beltway for serious thinking and a serious commitment to deficit reduction,” Krugman quipped.
As for his reputation as a deep thinker, Nate Silver noted — also for the New York Times — that a statistical analysis of Ryan’s voting record placed him at about the same spot on the ideological spectrum as Minnesota’s tea party nutjob Michele Bachmann, whom the chattering classes rightly consider to be anything but serious.
Or look at Newsweek’s cover story, by Niall Ferguson, about why Obama should be voted out — it’s so riddled with the most blatant falsehoods that Ferguson, perhaps unaware that there’s this thing called Google, appears to have lied about which candidate he supported in 2008.
How easy it’s become to manipulate the media. You withhold any substantive information, not taking questions other than softballs thrown by friendly journos, until the travelling press is so desperate for a story that they’ll go with whatever you run up the flagpole. This week, the Boston Globe – another supposedly über-liberal paper – ran an editorial calling for Joe Biden to apologize for saying that Romney, who had promised to “unchain” – deregulate – Wall Street would “put y’all back in chains.” Are we to suddenly pretend, en masse, that references to slavery haven’t become a staple of campaign speeches? Hardly a week goes by without a Republican urging African American voters to flee the “Democratic Plantation,” or saying that government regulations are “shackling the economy.” That stuff doesn’t leave the Globe editorial board reaching for their smelling salts. Yes, Biden made a poor choice of words, but with the number of Americans living near the poverty line reaching an all-time high, one might think that we could talk about topics other than the ‘gaffes’ that political reporters so enjoy.
Meanwhile, the Romney camp has referred to Obama as a “food-stamp president,” and is running a series of dog-whistle ads claiming – also entirely falsely – that Obama is rolling back the Clinton era work reforms. The ads are reminiscent of the infamous “White Hands” ads Jesse Helms ran in 1990. Political scientist Michael Tesler studied voters’ reactions to seeing Romney’s first welfare ad, and found that, “among those who saw it, racial resentment affected whether people thought Romney will help the poor, the middle class, and African-Americans.”
The political press seems almost allergic to diving into the policy weeds to offer readers a sense of what politicians would actually do if elected. After Paul Ryan appeared – with his mother – at a Florida retirement community, the Washington Post quoted one of the attendees saying, “I personally like his plan, because at 73, it really wouldn’t affect me… It’s something for the future. Under Obama, I just have too many problems — with the money he took away, the $716 billion.”
Both statements are totally untrue, but only one – that Obama “raided” Medicare – has been widly debunked by the fact-checkers. Every day reporters repeat the false claim that Ryan’s roadmap doesn’t impact people aged 55 and over because they wouldn;t be switched over to vouchers. But the reality is that Ryan’s budget repeals “Obamacare,” which is closing the prescription drug “donut hole” and covering free wellness visits and cancer screening for retirees right now, and he’d cut Medicaid by about a third over the next ten years (about a quarter of all Medicaid dollars go to seniors – it helps pay for 6 million retirees’ home health visits and covers Medicare’s out-of-pocket expenses for millions more). This isn’t some obscure policy arcania – it’s simple stuff to understand.)
So, no, tender Politico writers, we won’t have a lofty debate about the issues. But don’t blame the candidates – to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, they’re going to war with the press they have, not the one they necessarily want. Look in the mirror, because nobody is forcing you to uncritically repeat the campaigns’ claims or offer us breathless stories about who raised more dough or ran more ads in the battleground states. It’s you who will go bonkers over something vaguely titilatting like a bunch of drunk Republicans skinny dipping in Israel – nobody’s making you downplay reports that the FBI was investigating allegations that one of those swimmers had violated campaign finance laws (it was none other than Politico that offered an “exclusive report” claiming that the FBI “probed a late-night swim,” as if that’s even remotely plausible).
And that’s why we’ll continue living in a democracy in which 30 percent of adults can’t tell you which major party is more conservative or correctly name their sitting vice president. But they’re not clueless about everything. They know when they’re being poorly informed, which is why Pew tells us that, “for the second time in a decade, the believability ratings for major news organizations have suffered broad-based declines.”