Now that the conventions have come to a close, it disappoints me to say that my predictions last week regarding convention coverage were on target. I would much rather have the mainstream media prove me wrong than for reporters to fall into their continual patterns of horse race journalism, stenography, and shallow analysis.
However, there was one element of the MSM’s convention coverage that I neglected to consider beforehand. As The Huffington Post reported, not only was there a striking lack of analysis and an overwhelming amount of commentary, there was also a large amount of actual gushing from the punditry over the conventions’ keynote speakers. Most notably, there was quite a bit of swooning over first lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton’s addresses at the DNC. The critical separation between the MSM and the politicians they cover is becoming less pronounced, as the coverage takes on an increasingly friendly and accommodating tone.
Before Clinton’s speech, he appeared on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams for an exclusive interview. In what is likely a classic case of access journalism, Williams asked the former president mainly softball questions about his relationship with President Obama. I suppose one or two questions addressing this would have been acceptable, whereupon Williams could have then moved on to more pertinent matters of policy. Unfortunately, the interview remained on this topic, and it’s hard to imagine that Williams truly believes that the details of Clinton and Obama’s interpersonal relationship are that relevant to the U.S. public. Furthermore, it’s not as though there’s a shortage of connections that could be made between the former and current presidents’ administrations.
In the interview, Clinton defended Obama’s efforts to turn around the economy, and he reiterated that given the size of the mess Obama inherited, he could only do so much in four years. If Williams were astute enough, he could have easily probed this further and connected the ways in which the economic crisis partially stemmed from Clinton-era policies. Most notably, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which repealed the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. This was one of the key pieces of legislation that contributed to the financial crisis in that it essentially erased the separation between commercial and investment banks that the U.S. government at the time deemed necessary as a result of the Great Depression. Lawrence Summers, who served as Obama’s director of the White House National Economic Council, praised the repeal of Glass-Steagall when he was serving as Clinton’s Treasury Secretary. Williams had an ample opportunity to address this, but because Clinton granted him an exclusive interview, he kept the tone jovial.
Of course, it’s important to note that the Bush administration is also at fault for embracing and deepening industry deregulation, and Clinton alone isn’t to blame for the financial crisis. The MSM has failed to do an adequate job of explaining the complexity of the recession and its historical roots. The U.S. public needs to understand the wider economic trend of neoliberalism. Essentially, since the 1970s, all U.S. presidents have participated in implementing neoliberal economic policies to varying degrees. The hallmarks of neoliberalism are increased privatization of formerly public sector services, a push for free trade, reducing social spending, and other free-market solutions that call for a decreased role of government regulation in the economy. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz is a notable critic of neoliberalism, and has analyzed its role in the economic downturn and in creating greater economic inequality. Despite neoliberalism playing such a remarkable role in the economic troubles of the United States in recent decades, the MSM rarely, if ever, tackles this in a meaningful way. It’s no surprise then that Williams reinforced this trend.
The MSM’s lack of focus on complex matters of policy in favor of displaying their personal admiration and chumminess with politicians is not just irresponsible, it’s downright dangerous. Glenn Greenwald recently wrote a scathing critique of campaign coverage, and noted how CNN anchor Erin Burnett remained largely non-analytical in her assessment of Ann Romney and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s speeches:
“Blitzer’s co-anchor, Erin Burnett – who, the night before, described how she ‘had a tear in [her] eye’ as she listened to Ann Romney’s convention speech – added this journalistic wisdom: ‘That’s right. Certainly so. We were jotting down points. There will be issues with some of the facts. But it motivated people. He’s [Ryan] a man who says I care deeply about every single word. I want to do a good job. And he delivered on that. Precise, clear, and passionate.’”
As a journalist, Burnett’s focus should be the facts, not sharing her personal feelings and reactions to the speech itself. With the facts becoming secondary, it’s no wonder that the MSM continually offers plenty of examples of the erosion of the mission of journalism. With about two months left until the election, it’s unlikely that these criticisms will elicit a change in the MSM’s political reporting. I can only hope they prove me wrong this time.