BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON
The media made another contribution to the ‘dumbing down’ of American politics this week in their coverage of the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas.
If you saw the debate, ask yourself a question. What piece of information conveyed during the debates will be most important to you in making a decision at the polls in 2012? The discussion of Herman Cain’s tax proposal? Foreign aid to Israel? Cutting defense spending? Securing our borders?
Not to Carl Cameron of Fox News or Brian Williams of NBC or Scott Pelley at CBS or the Washington Post or the Washington Times.
The most important piece of information in the debate for the media was the exchange between Gov. Rick Perry and former Gov. Mitt Romney about a meaningless lawn mowing incident four years ago. Apparently, back in 2007, Romney hired a lawn-mowing company that employed an illegal alien. Yep. Romney didn’t hire the worker and when a reporter exposed his employment, Romney ordered the company to fire him. When the company failed to, Romney fired the company. We weren’t told whether Romney had to mow his own lawn. Nothing in the exchange was new. The incident had been thoroughly vetted and reported years ago.
The day after the debate, however, that eruption and another involving Herman Cain shaped the headlines and drove coverage.
Perry clearly knew the facts surrounding the incident, but he rose up in righteous indignation anyway, like a tent preacher exorcising evil spirits, accusing Romney of engaging in the height of hypocrisy. What theater.
It is fine for Perry to perform that way. Apparently his advisors saw an opportunity for him to look Texas tough by going after Romney, making up for poor performances in the previous two debates. It was humorous that the Perry camp couldn’t find an issue more credible than the 4-year old case of the mystery grass cutter. But creating conflict and sticking your finger in someone’s chest is a sure-fire gimmick to get yourself on the evening news.
The media didn’t disappoint.
The post-debate coverage focused almost entirely on conflict and ignored substance and substantive issues. That same coverage was repeated the following days as well.
I would guess that will be the model for the next 13 months, heavy focus on conflict and little on the complexities of issues that voters need to understand in order to pick the right leaders for such a critical time. It has been the history of politics and the media in America.
That kind of media coverage of political campaigns harms the political process.
It encourages candidates to behave badly. Particularly in congressional races and others down the ballot, candidates need recognition. They need exposure, and they know they can get it by behaving like a circus clown and appealing to raw human emotions. It is a vicious cycle of behavior that sends politics down a slippery spiral into the mud wrestling pen.
The incessant attention to hype squeezes out the flow of information about legitimate issues and legitimate differences on those issues. Perry has proposed a flat tax, a major departure from the current tax system and many voters will have to decide whether it is right for them on the basis of 10-second sound bites, slick professional slogans and very little attention to the details.
It is truly one of the greatest fault lines in a democratic-republic of our size and complexity. People don’t know enough and don’t have access to the knowledge they need to make intelligent choices. It is truly the dumbing-down of the system.
The media have helped make our political process a stage for incivility, absurdity, irrelevancy, antagonism and bitterness. The result has been the rise of debilitating, partisan brinkmanship and the fall of good governance.
There are some solutions, but they would be difficult to apply when bad behavior is such a marketable commodity. That’s the rub. Most people say they hate negative ads, but apparently they don’t hate them enough to turn their heads away. They work.
Here are 10 changes the media ought to consider for campaign coverage next year:
1. Apply a relevance test to content. Give coverage priority to what reporters and editors believe will be most helpful to voter decision-making. Quit making lame excuses that covering irrelevance gives us a window into the soul of the candidate.
2. Cover more policy than politics. Give less treatment to the politics of an issue and more to its specifics. Most stories devote time and space to too much of the political intrigue and speculation and too little to substance.
3. Restrict or prohibit the use of anonymous sources.
4. Quit using terms such as “many” people believe, or “most” Republicans support, unless you can tell us from survey data just how many “many” are.
5. Be cautious in quoting or using material from “public” interest groups such as the Center for Responsive Politics unless you have vetted the information and believe it to be an accurate reflection of reality. There are no interest groups in politics who serve only the public good. In the end, they serve their own good and their own partisan and subjective interests, and that has to be weighed.
6. Quit picking winners and losers before the voters do. Resist focusing so much attention on candidates you think are clear front-runners. You deny credible candidates the chance to be credible and often your judgments about who’s in the lead are faulty or at best highly premature. The election is 13 months away.
7. Quit printing and broadcasting rumors.
8. Get over your biases regarding campaign contributions. Your subjective interventionist, adversarial journalism distorts the issue and the problems and makes reform of the system that much harder.
9. Provide more fact-checking. Keep opinions confined to opinion pages and segments of broadcasts. Keep them out of the news coverage.
10. Quit making such a big deal about every exploitation book that gets into print and prohibit your employees from writing them.