The Media on Presidential Campaigns: Examine Thyself
By Ralph Nader
The media coverage of the Presidential campaigns is a dreary repetition of past coverage. Stuck in a rut and garnished by press cynicism and boredom, media groupthink becomes more ossified every four years.
This massive mental motion-sickness confines reporters, editors and producers to the following all too predictable patterns:
1. They follow the money, whenever disclosed, but don’t diligently pursue the quid pro quos which NBC’s David Brinkley described as “deferred bribes.” Like a constant posting of a basketball game’s score, this reporting of cash register politics goes on and on.
2. They spend considerable time and ink on the tactics of the Obama and Romney campaigns. This year the Republican primary season took much of the attention of the campaign press as first Santorum, then Gingrich, then Romney, then Santorum, then Romney were the tactics-driven winners.
3. The horserace is closely connected to the punditry’s facile fascinations – especially on the cable shows and the Sunday morning news programs. Who is ahead in the polls? Who is slipping? Who may slip? How will the candidates confront the next hurdle?
4. Then there are the gaffes! The population of gaffedom is growing and is the ultimate titillation for the reporters. It’s a gotcha moment that comes from the candidates or their chief honchos so that reporters cannot be accused of initiating trivia. Michael Kinsley once described a Washington, D.C. gaffe as someone really telling the inconvenient truth inadvertently.
Then there are gaffes manufactured by unscrupulous political consultants who neatly slice off the words that would have explained away the purported gaffe.
Gaffes don’t have long legs but they can crowd out all other communications by the candidate for several days. Gaffes provide reporters leisurely comic relief and require little work. (See links to this year’s political gaffes below.)
Gaffes proliferate when there are political vacuums that should be filled with reporting on substantive policies and agendas. After all, the campaign trail is usually a mind-numbing daily routine of déjà vu right down to the contrived quips, laughs and the same three or four issue lines that make up the repertoire for the faithful.
5. Then there is the Morton Mintz admonition that should haunt any conscientious reporter. Mintz was a great reporter for the Washington Post for about thirty years. After he retired, he issued a series of questions the press should but does not ask of candidates running for federal office (http://www.mortonmintz.com/work1.htm).
Here are some samples from 2000: “Whether Congress should rescue 13.5 million American children from hunger”; “whether ending poverty in America is as important as tax cuts for the middle class and the wealthy”; and “whether it would be wise or unwise to adopt the nonprofit, Canadian-style ‘single payer’ system, which would provide health insurance for all Americans, enable every citizen to choose his or her own physician, end insurers’ interference in the doctor-patient relationship, improve the overall health of the American people, and save $127 billion in administrative and billing costs in 2001 alone.” Lest you think the latter is a loaded question, Mintz always cited reputable studies and sources, in this case the General Accounting Office and a prominent Harvard Medical School professor.
Another question Mintz asked was “whether the federal government should stop doling out more than $125 billion a year to politically-wired corporations and industries – corporate welfare that costs the government as much as it collects in income taxes from 60 million individuals and families.” Mintz put forth question after question and reporter after reporter ignored them while covering the campaign. So too did the eminent columnists and editorial writers.
6. Given that the two major parties superficially contend more and more over fewer and fewer subjects or redirections for the country, it should be incumbent for reporters to once in a while look at what third parties are putting forward for voter choices in a two party tyranny that obstructs them at every step – from ballot access to exclusion from the debates.
I’ve kept my website from 2008 open for this comparative purpose (see: http://www.votenader.org/) and today’s Green, Justice, Libertarian and Constitution Party websites also present their priorities.
Because the media views third parties as “can’t win” alternatives, they avoid them, forgetting their pioneering contributions in American history (anti-slavery, women’s right to vote, labor and farmer protections). This blackout assures that fresh seeds and saplings in American politics do not have a chance to sprout, as they have in Parliamentary systems.
7. Finally there is the suffocating self-imposed conformity of reporters and commentators. No one is stopping them from asking Presidential and other federal candidates about important issues, like cracking down on corporate crime (See: http://www.corporatecrimereporter.com/), raising the federal minimum wage to that of 1968 adjusted for inflation, or the war in Afghanistan and the use of drones anywhere a President chooses to send them, even over sovereign countries.
Defining news as largely focusing on charges or assertions generated by the candidates produces a narrowing of meaningful public debate. Instead, the presidential election, when the public’s attention peaks, should produce a widening public reporting and discussion. Imagine twenty presidential debates around the country with tough questioning by informed reporters and engaged citizens. (See George Farah’s book No Debate .)
Mintz, never jaded into giving up, wrote an article titled “The Sound You Hear Is Silence,” noting that “when the subject is corporate immorality, nary a judgmental word is heard…. it’s Fleedom of the Press.”
The media should engage in some serious introspection!