Legion. An amalgamated journal.

A Paean to Press-reformers

Elizabeth Edwards is right:

The problem today unfortunately is that voters who take their responsibility to be informed seriously enough to search out information about the candidates are finding it harder and harder to do so, particularly if they do not have access to the Internet.

Did you, for example, ever know a single fact about Joe Biden’s health care plan? Anything at all? But let me guess, you know Barack Obama’s bowling score. We are choosing a president, the next leader of the free world. We are not buying soap, and we are not choosing a court clerk with primarily administrative duties.

And she’s supported by more than anecdotal evidence:

A report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy found that during the early months of the 2008 presidential campaign, 63 percent of the campaign stories focused on political strategy while only 15 percent discussed the candidates’ ideas and proposals.

James Fallows, rightly, weighs in:

The more heartfelt and bitter complaint is about the way press coverage seems biased not against any particular candidate but against the entire process of politics, in the sense that politics includes the public effort to resolve difficult issues. (Medical care, climate change, banking crises, military priorities, etc.)

Matthew Yglesias is also, predictably, right:

What’s driving this, I think, are the dual desires to be “tough” and to be “objective.” In particular, being objective is thought to preclude being tough about public policy because that would entail picking sides in ideology-inflicted arguments. And people didn’t get into this business in order to provide softball coverage. So instead you ask tough questions about process or about trivia, even though there’s little evidence that these are the subjects about which people want to hear.

The real-time American political narrative should be the story of our leaders’ evolving ideas rather than that of their unfolding intrigues. If mainstream media impresarios are not up to the challenge of producing and disseminating that story, then perhaps they should follow what according to Fallows is their own advice and “find a different line of work.” Meticulously-researched, policy-oriented political reporting must become newly de rigueur even if not initially popular (and by extension not initially profitable), but there is no concrete reason to believe that it would be unpopular.

Elizabeth Edwards is right to point out that many Americans crave a more substantive public flow of information and that our system of government cannot function correctly in the absence of a press exhaustively engaged with the issues at hand. I would add that our system of government can function perfectly well without the pulp, armchair analysis of candidates’ lifestyles and campaign strategies that has dominated news cycles since well before Arugulagate. I would add also that the press at large, in attempting to voice and appeal to the average voter’s concerns by reducing discourse to the lowest common denominator, is doing little more than embarrassing itself and depressing the intelligence of the American people.

In closing, Mark Twain was right before any of these people and still is (in a talk entitled “License of the Press” before the Monday Evening Club, Hartford, 1873):

It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people—who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations—do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.

Maryellen McGowan

April 28th, 2008 at 9:09 pm

But perhaps you disagree

One response so far

  • [ # ] Garrett Dash NelsonApr 29, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    From Roy:

    We think of these crises as a test for Obama, but as things are currently playing out, they strike me as more of a test of our politics — that is, of whether we are so fatally addicted to sideshows that we can’t have a national election about even the most pressing national issues. Obama’s political fortunes, or those of any candidate, are small potatoes compared to that.