With the presidential nominating conventions occurring in the next two weeks, the mainstream media will provide us with their proverbial “greatest hits” of election coverage. You don’t have to be a fortune teller to know that no matter what newsworthy tidbits emerge from the conventions, the punditry’s analysis will fall within two predictable confines: horse-race journalism and stenography.
Ahead By A Nose
Horse-race journalism is the kind of political reporting that only concerns itself with poll numbers. Reporters will tell you who’s winning, who’s losing, and in what demographic categories. It lacks focus on candidate/party platforms, and avoids any thorough investigation of issues relevant to the election, or you know, to the majority of the public.
Occasionally, there will be some analysis about undecided voters, if only because voters falling outside of the partisan binary perplex the establishment and impact the numbers.
Sound-bites will be dissected, either candidate’s “image” will be shallowly addressed, and above all, in-depth investigation of pertinent issues will largely be absent. The economy or the role of government might be addressed in vague terms, but there will be no panel discussion about the impact of free trade on global economic inequality and the U.S. trade deficit, and what each candidate’s policy position is on it. Perhaps one candidate or the other will be labeled as simply “for” or “against” certain matters of policy, but the analysis stops there. It’s as if the intensely partisan script has already been written, and who will win the race is on top of the agenda.
He Said, She Said, They Said
Beyond the horse-race editorializing, mainstream journalists – especially those on cable television – will merely act as stenographers for the political establishment. Essentially, a typical report falls within these parameters: “Obama said this, Romney said that, and that’s all you need to know. Wow, this really is an exciting race!”
This is where conceptions of journalistic objectivity get muddled. This is an oversimplified analogy, but it explains the gist of the problem: If one candidate says the sky is blue, and the other candidate says the sky is black because every time he goes out at night it is, should the reporter merely state what each candidate said and stop there? Or should the reporter delve into an explanation for why one candidate is incorrect? Should a reporter give all perspectives equal weight, even if the facts clearly indicate that the one candidate is wrong? Public policy issues are rarely that simple, but within that analogy lays the criticism of the political punditry today. It’s a complex question of ethics, social responsibility, and the larger mission of journalism.
Glenn Greenwald recently suggested that establishment journalists are, in fact, worse than stenographers. Greenwald asserts that not only are these reporters just recording verbatim what government sources say, but also seeking approval from those officials before going on air with their quotes. So-called access journalism, another common criticism of mainstream reporting, occurs when journalists make ethically questionable compromises in order to gain access to high-level sources. As Greenwald explains it, “I [the government official] will only talk to you, if I can approve all quotes and information that you cite in your story.” There is no better example of journalism’s watchdog function being eroded.
Freedom of the Press?
It’s hard to imagine that the press, the purported fourth estate of democracy, has ever been less independent from government and corporate interests in contemporary times, something that is especially scary considering the unprecedented influx of special interest money following the Citizens United decision.
Within the next few weeks, there will no doubt be a plethora of things to critically analyze in terms of the mainstream media’s coverage of the conventions. This is simply laying the sadly predictable groundwork for what is sure to come.