Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The media are mindless

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Jay Rosen has an excellent column at Salon, well worth reading in its entirety. His conclusion:

Let’s see if we can bring these strands together. I’ve been picking at the weaknesses of horse-race coverage, but to really understand it we need to appreciate its practical strengths.

Who’s-gonna-win is portable, reusable from cycle to cycle, and easily learned by newcomers to the press pack. Journalists believe it brings readers to the page and eyeballs to the screen. It “works” regardless of who the candidates are, or where the nation is in historical time. No expertise is actually needed to operate it. In that sense, it is economical. (And when everyone gets the winner wrong the “surprise” becomes a good story for a few days.) Who’s going to win — and what’s their strategy — plays well on television, because it generates an endless series of puzzles toward which journalists can gesture as they display their savviness, which is the unofficial religion of the mainstream press.

But the biggest advantage of horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to “play up their detachment.” Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Ever noticed how spirits lift when the pundit roundtable turns from the Middle East or the looming recession to the horse race, and there’s an opportunity for sizing up the candidates? To be manifestly agenda-less is journalistic bliss. Of course, since trying to get ahead of the voters can affect how voters view the candidates, the innocence, too, is an illusion. But a potent one.

Imagine if we had them all — the whole Gang of 500 — in a room and we asked them (off the record): How many of you feel roughly qualified to be Secretary of State? Ted Koppel having retired, no hands would go up. Secretary of the Treasury? No hands. White House Chief of Staff? Maybe one or two would raise a hand. Qualified to be President? No one would dare say that. Strategist for a presidential campaign? I’d say at least 200 hands would shoot up. Reporters identify with those guys — the behind-the-scenes message senders — and they cultivate the same knowledge.

What a waste! Journalists ought to be bringing new knowledge into the system, as Charlie Savage and the Boston Globe did in December. They gave the presidential candidates a detailed questionnaire on the limits of executive branch power and nine candidates responded. This is a major issue that any candidate for president should have to address, given the massive build-up of presidential power engineered by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. We desperately need to know what the contenders for the presidency intend to do — continue the build-up or roll it back? — but we won’t know unless the issue is injected into the campaign.

Now, that’s both a political and a journalistic act. And where does the authority for doing such things come from? There is actually no good answer to that within the press system as it stands, and so the beast would never go there.

The Globe’s questionnaire grew out of Savage’s earlier reporting on the “unitary executive” and the drive to create an “unfettered presidency.” (See this PBS interview with Savage; also, contrast the Globe’s treatment with more of a throwaway effort from the New York Times.) Here, the job of the campaign press is not to preempt the voters’ decision by asking endlessly, and predicting constantly, who’s going to win. The job is to make certain that what needs to be discussed will be discussed in time to make a difference — and then report on that.

Written by Leisureguy

21 January 2008 at 3:58 pm

Posted in Election, Media

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