A new study out from the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy shows what readers of political blogs in either half of Blogistan already know painfully well: traditional media's coverage of our political contests is dissatisfying and generally uninformative. The study, entitled "The Invisible Primary—Invisible No Longer: A First Look at Coverage of the 2008 Presidential Campaign," also paints a clear picture of what's wrong, laying out how the media focuses obsessively on the "horse race" aspects of political campaigns—tactics, strategy, positioning, and polling, while almost completely ignoring critical issues like the candidates' actual records and the likely impact of the candidates' policy positions on citizens' lives.
Take a look at the following thumbnail sketch of American campaign coverage that I've put together based on the report's results and see if it looks at all familiar:
A small handful of contenders on each side are selected at the outset and then followed as they make their way through the season. The study shows that only five candidates have received the overwhelming majority of the primary coverage, and that the public seriously want to know more about other options.Narrative frames are assigned early on, so that each contestant fits a certain archetype. The two front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, have received consistently negative coverage. But the most negative coverage has gone to McCain (who early on went from the Hardened Gunslinger to the Big Disappointment). Obama, in contrast, has gotten far and away the biggest share of positive press, due to his role as the Hopeful Contender.Coverage focuses on how this handful of characters maneuver, jab, feint, and otherwise jockey for position throughout the different phases of the contest. "In all, 63% of the campaign stories focused on political and tactical aspects of the campaign," states a report summary. "Just 12% of stories examined were presented in a way that explained how citizens might be affected by the election, while nearly nine out of ten stories (86%) focused on matters that largely impacted only the parties and the candidates."Though the report doesn't mention it, the coverage now ends with the ever-more-popular polling night collection of "expert" talking heads, giving a play-by-play analysis of the contest as the returns come in.
That's right: this is sports coverage. Indeed, smaller press outlets, opinion magazines, and blogs have put out a growing body of critical commentary—most of which started out as satire but which is rapidly morphing into desperate pleading—that's dedicated to pointing out the (often unintentionally hilarious) ways in which political coverage and sports coverage are converging along every conceivable axis.
There are at least two reasons why modern political coverage is the way that it is—obsessively campaign-focused, with almost no attention to the either the past or the future impact of a candidate's policies on citizens' lives.
First, to actually point out the beneficial or negative effects of a candidate's past policies on a particular group of citizens would require journalists to make an honest-to-god evaluation, i.e., "This is good, and that is bad." Likewise with covering the probable future impact of a candidate's positions on the issues. But such critical evaluations open up journalists to charges of "bias," so they simply avoid making them. It's easy to be "neutral" if you're just dishing positive and negative dirt on players, teams, and contests, so sports coverage is what we get from journalists who fear accusations of ideological bias.
The second issue is related to the market and what the market likes. By "market," I don't just mean the citizen consumers of political news. A news outlet's "market" is also the advertisers who pay bills and bonuses, and that market loves sensational, "He said, she said!" and "Who's up, who's down?" controversy just as much as the general public. As for the kind of issues-based, big-picture, fundamental, "Who are we as a people, and what kind of country do we really want to live in?" controversy… Well, that stuff is kind of like broccoli—it's not terribly popular, it takes work to digest, and it has the potential to bring about unpredictable, deeply felt, possibly ill-timed and highly inconvenient shifts in the nether regions of the electorate. If you're an agency that's entrusted with the care and guidance of an established, family-friendly American brand, is this really where you want to spend ad dollars if you can reach the exact same audience via other, safer options… options like sports or fashion?
It's not that advertisers are part of some sinister conspiracy to actively suppress reporting that digs too deeply, it's that the market seems to favor content that contains just enough McControversy to attract viewers but that doesn't truly alienate anyone on a fundamental level. It's no coincidence that television news coverage (to single out the biggest offender) began taking this superficial, sports-centric turn in conjunction with its shift in the 90s from a loss leader for the networks into an actual profit center.
Of course, the Pew study doesn't provide any direct support for the "follow the ad money" hypothesis that I've outlined here, so your mileage may vary.
At least now they're experts at something
The study also suggests that the daily paper is the last bastion of citizen-oriented political reporting, something that makes total sense to me—but that scares me nonetheless. While the dailies may be more anchored in their local communities and therefore more in tune with how politicians' decisions affect the folks around them, newspaper beat reporters are also the least-informed members of the media ecosystem on just about any topic.
It's the newspaper reporter who hews most closely to the traditional image of the journalist as the disinterested, omnipresent outsider with notepad in hand, digging up the facts and talking to the experts and insiders in order to get the "real scoop." These folks are committed generalists, who by design lack a deep knowledge of any one topic.
Seen against the foil of the clueless beat reporter, the rest of the press's move towards an "inside baseball" model of reporting might seem like a tiny step in the right direction. At least sports reporters have to know something about sports, so we can expect some level of tactical and strategic expertise from the talking heads. But don't squint at it too hard, or this thin silver lining might disappear in a haze of conflicts of interest.
Postscript: A Tale of Two Conferences
What follows is a short story in two acts, after the style of Tom Friedman.
Act I: Yearly Kos 2007, Chicago, IL
She was obviously confused. A short woman in her late 20s or early 30s, she scurried from one side of the parking garage to the other, growing more frustrated by the second. Then she spotted me watching her and moved in closer to get a look at the conference credentials hanging around my neck on an orange band. Clearly, I had been here before and knew my way around. So she piped up: "Excuse me. Which way to the Yearly Kos?"
We chatted for a bit as I showed her to the parking garage exit, then across the connecting bridge and into the main conference hall. It turned out that she was a reporter for a large daily paper that shall go unnamed, a paper whose technology coverage I happened to have followed at one point in my life. The paper's tech coverage was awful and written by people who didn't really know that much about technology. So I told her as much.
Of course, I laid out my case against the paper with my biggest, winningest smile, and she took it pretty well in stride. After all, technology wasn't her beat.
"I was an education reporter," she said, "but I've just now been assigned to the politics beat. I'm not really up on politics, so I'm trying to learn as much as I can right now about Hillary Clinton's campaign."
Act II: Federated Media's 2007 Conversational Marketing Conference, San Francisco, CA
"That guy totally looks like Markos Moulitsas from Daily Kos," I told Ken, pointing to someone stationed near the oyster bar the other side of the reception hall. "What would he be doing here at the FM conference? I thought he was on the Blogads network."
My curiosity eventually got the better of me, so I walked up to him and introduced myself. He was indeed the famous "Kos"—darling of the Left, villain of the Right. After chatting with him about Yearly Kos for a minute, I asked him why he was at the FM conference.
"I'm branching out," he replied, "and starting a network of sports blogs."