Friday, September 12, 2008

Lipstick on the press

The national news media, especially the cable and broadcast news media, might as well go ahead and put big "tool" stickers on their foreheads for the duration of the presidential election. Their complicity and delight in helping divert the American public from substantive issues has been evident throughout the primary season this past year, and -- despite the extraordinary stakes in this election -- it continues apace.

The latest and perhaps most egregious example is giving credence to the McCain campaign's objectively bogus claim that Barack Obama called Sarah Palin a pig the other day when Obama repeated a cliche he's often used ("You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig") when discussing McCain's economic policy. Obama was clearly referring to economics and had not even brought up Palin so far in his remarks when he used the refrain -- one that McCain has also used this year in criticizing Democratic policies. But the McCain people are smart enough to know that, since Sarah Palin recently brought up lipstick to distinguish hockey moms from pit bulls, they could then accuse Obama of sexism and tie up a couple of news cycles.

News outlets like CNN took up this cause, despite knowing, and generally pointing out, that the McCain campaign's claim was fabricated. It doesn't seem to occur to these reporters and producers that when they go ahead and lead news programs with bogus claims, they lend support to those claims and give aid and comfort to their progenitors. See my previous post on research showing that repeating a lie further embeds it in people's heads, even if you prove the lie to be false.

The extraordinary thing is that, even as self-proclaimed journalists wallow in this incendiary crap -- to the exclusion of delving into actual health, tax and national security policy in any meaningful way -- they pretend that they're just along for the ride and have no choice but to cooperate. Watch how CNN Deputy Political Director Paul Steinhauser introduces the "lipstick on a pig" hoax by saying, "This is what they're arguing about today ... Can you believe it?"

As Obama explains in the clip, he wasn't arguing about lipstick -- he was arguing about economic policy. He had to talk about lipstick the next day because the McCain campaign made up a ludicrous charge and the news stations all started repeating it.

What if these journalists did their jobs, evaluated the truth or falsity of stories BEFORE airing them, and stopped being boxing gloves for whichever campaign is smart enough to distract and delude them from their real responsibilities?

Fortunately, there is some deeper reporting that is bothering to call out the McCain campaign for its carefully crafted and expertly deployed low blows in this election, despite the danger of being called partisan for doing so. Here's an AP analysis, for example.

I need to disclose here that I'm supporting the Obama campaign. I'm not presently affiliated with a news organization. I believe the fate of our democratic republic -- which has been under assault from within as well as without in the past eight years -- rides on the outcome of this election. This is not a partisan belief. It is based on my understanding of the Constitution and of the role that both the people and the press play in deciding the future of our country. If John McCain and his supporters want to convince the American public that they truly have a better plan for restoring this country's strength, security, global leadership and economic stability, let them do it. Let the news media hold McCain and Obama accountable for their records and ideas. Let all the candidates submit to tough questioning from fair-minded reporters, and let the best ideas and leaders emerge.

In the meantime, if this is the best the national political media can do for our country, we might as well consign the very idea of a democracy guided by an informed public to the dust bin of history.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

If you don't like it, stop it

Romenesko linked to an interesting speech that Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz gave the other day at Columbia University.

He said a couple of things that would have brought me to my feet, like this:

This election reminds us of something that has too often been ignored: That Washington matters. That government matters. Most of all, that who wins the White House matters. As we have seen over the past eight years, the choice of a president affects the way America projects its power around the world and how the world sees us. It affects who gets health care and at what price. It affects who gets taxed and at what rates. It affects the distribution of wealth in a society where income inequality continues to grow. It affects how we educate children and how we care for older Americans. It affects what this nation does to combat global climate change and therefore the world your children and your grandchildren will inherit.

That's exactly the kind of understanding that leads to substantive political reporting and, ideally, a better informed and more thoughtful electorate. Balz also said this:

Good political reporting devotes as much energy and curiosity to plumbing the state of the country, the aspirations of all Americans, the clash of ideas and the changes that may be realigning the nation’s political power structure, as it does to what candidates say or do on any given day.

That's about context, which lends meaning to the news of the day. Amen.

Here, though, is where Balz lost my sympathy:

My first concern is that we talk more and more about less and less. We seize on trivial developments rather than big ideas. We obsess over process and but not over policy. We over-cover a snide remark by David Geffen about the Clintons and under-cover a major speech. We spend too much time speculating about the future and not enough examining and understanding the present and the past. We write for one another and talk too much to one another. In other words, we are in danger of reducing to an insider’s game the most important set of decisions people are making about the future of our country.

Note the disconnect in this relatively short speech between what Balz says is important (see his first passage) and what he says political journalists do. His acknowledgement of how far off the rails most political reporting is, is particularly disappointing because Balz so clearly understands what it should be.

My advice to Dan, and all the other people currently covering politics but unhappy with the state of political coverage, is: START DOING IT RIGHT.

Balz's lamentation implies a feeling of helplessness, but all it would take for political coverage to improve in this country is for political reporters and their editors to stop complaining about how trivial much of their work is and do the other kind of work instead. Stop talking about how political journalism needs to be better, and make it better. If the Washington Post can't do it, who can?

In fairness, the Post's political coverage is about as extensive as one could hope to find, and although it delves deeply into the inside-baseball, blow-by-blow aspects of electoral politics, it also spends a lot of time on substance, issues, fact-checking and the other elements that make elections historic decisions and not cultural side shows. If everybody covered politics as thoroughly as The Washington Post, Dan Balz wouldn't have to complain.

But every election cycle we watch journalists wring their hands over how shallow, horse-racey and misguided election coverage is, when they're the very people who produce it. It's like going to a restaurant and having the chef complain about how bad the food is there.

Hey, chef, make better food!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sucking up to pols, vs. socking it to them

I've got another column on the Committee of Concerned Journalists site, this one comparing two incidents of presidential election coverage on cable.

In one case, a network continued flogging a story that its own journalists and analysts were consistently saying was a non-story.

In another case, an anchor didn't let a candidate's surrogate get away with generalizations.

Check it out.