Saturday, April 19, 2008

Media Coverage of the Campaign

In blog time, 15 minutes is an eternity, so I know that I'm a bit late to this, but I wanted to mention the Politico story on Obama's media treatment by John Harris and Jim Vandehei. The story makes some good points about the generally positive coverage that Obama has gotten from the media, but they then go on to defend the questions in last week's ABC debate:

It is not reporters’ job to promote the opposition’s story lines — especially dubious ones like the suggestion that because Obama does not favor flag pins on his lapel it reflects adversely on his patriotism. But nor can serious reporters avert their gaze from the fact that questions about how well candidates connect personally and culturally with voters matter a lot — they were decisive factors in both the 2000 and 2004 elections.

Translation: We know these issues are BS, but they matter to voters, so we journalists have to go along.

This analysis overlooks that there's little evidence that the candidates' personal or cultural connections matter significantly in a general election or that these were decisive factors in the 2000 and 2004. Furthermore, even if this were true, Harris and Vadehei mistakenly assume that journalist are innocent bystanders who merely focus on the topics that arise spontaneously from the minds of voters. Political scientist V.O. Key once wrote:

The voice of the people is but an echo. The output of an echo chamber bears an inevitable and invariable relation to the input. As candidates and parties clamor for attention and vie for popular support, the people's verdict can be no more than a selective reflection from among the alternatives and outlooks presented to them.

In other words, garbage in, garbage out. If the media decide to focus on bitter, bowling, and beer, then lo and behold, so will voters. If, on the other hand, the media decide to focus on jobs, housing, and Iraq, then so will the voters.

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