Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Media Bouncing the Election

If you are at all like me, you are probably confused or frustrated by all of the stories about Obama getting a "bounce" in the polls one week, only to see Romney get a "bounce" the following week. In actuality, according to Neal Gabler in the Los Angeles Times, bounces have very little to do with either candidate, but rather "to do with certain proclivities within the American media." Referencing political scientist Thomas Patterson's study of campaign media coverage, Gabler asserts that they "really only have four stories to tell: a candidate is winning or losing, gaining ground or losing ground." The press have a distinct narrative for each situation, which is why "the coverage of one presidential election pretty much mirrors the coverage of every other election. In the media, every campaign is basically a sequel." There is, Gabler insists, "an iron law of American presidential campaign coverage that what goes up  must come down, and, conversely, what is down  must go up."These four stories, however, are dynamic rather than static. They "provide a narrative arc for the entire campaign "replete with twists and turns." When a candidate is riding high, "the media magnify his success, creating a bandwagon effect, touting his campaigning prowess, his human touch, his political instincts--while, of course, telling us how his opponent flounders."

Then, suddenly, with the slightest gaffe, the high-riding candidate finds out that the "talking heads" are saying that his prowess is diminishing. The "losing ground" narrative becomes the dominant motif for reporting on Candidate 1, while Candidate 2 has begun to close the gap. His formerly inept campaign has miraculously turned itself around. He has somehow found how to connect with his audiences and his poll numbers will almost certainly begin to rise. In both cases, according to Gabler, "the media are magnifying small blips into into large mountains." The reason for this remarkable transformation, in Patterson's analysis, happens because "journalists reason from effect to cause," rather than the normal way around. If either candidate's momentum seems slowed by rough terrain or his poll numbers slip even slightly, they will adduce a plethora of causes for this "significant" development, which, in turn, magnify whatever it is they are reporting. During the comic opera Republican primaries, according to the Pew Research Center, "the candidates were on a kind of roller coaster of positive and negative coverage. Since Romney was the clear front runner, the only way to make it a contest was to focus the spotlight on a succession of challengers--Bachman, Perry, Santorum , Cain, Gingrich. The farther out from the midstream, the more compelling the story. The only candidate who was not extreme enough to hold reader's attention, former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, received virtually no coverage and, almost without anyone noticing, quietly withdrew.The talking heads elevated Texas Governor Rick Perry to the role of chief challenger, until the candidate showed himself to be of no substance whatsoever. His disintegration led briefly to what the Pew Center dubbed a brief "going good" narrative for Romney. When Gingrich upset Romney in the South Carolina primary, he enjoyed a short period of positive coverage, while Romney was cast as a candidate who couldn't close the deal." It really wasn't until Romney defeated Santorum in the Michigan primary that the media "jumped back on his bandwagon and made him the inevitable choice."

What motivates reporters to engineer this political roller coaster ride is still a matter of speculation, even among those who recognize its operation. One analyst attributes the phenomenon to the a "subliminal mother instinct" on the part of journalists that causes them to attempt to rescue, albeit temporarily, candidates who are obviously drowning. Patterson subscribes to the "story imperative," the necessity to turn everything into a drama or human interest story in order to hold the attention of their audience. It is the same imperative that motivates sports reporters to spend more time on an athlete's "back story," than on his or her actual performance. Anyone who has ever watched "reality television" programs knows that building suspense and ersatz competition into the choices made by the contestants is the driving force that engages and holds the viewer. How else are you going to prevent viewers from switching channels when the score is 35-0 at the half? Nor is it accidental, according to Gabler, that the "story imperative" also makes the reporters themselves the authors of the campaign story, not just the passive recorders.

In conclusion, Gabler suggests another reason why mainstream journalists take us on such a roller coaster ride: pride in their own objectivity and even-handedness. Fearful of being accused of bias--especially of being cast as the "liberal media" by right-wing critics--they frequently bend over backwards to "tell both sides of the story," even when they know that there really is none. So they present evolution and creationism as equally valid "theories." Or that there is as much science behind those who posit human agency as a main cause of global warming and those who deny it.  "In effect," Gabler asserts, "the media rig the race by constantly modulating it, which may be the biggest bias of all."       

While Gabler's brief article highlights the problem, Patterson's Out Of Order analyzes it in scholarly depth. Central to our conundrum is the sea change that has taken place in the nomination process over the past 40 years. Simply put,  the media, both print and electronic, have assumed the role previously played by political parties. From the days of Andrew Johnson to 1968, the parties chose their candidates at a national convention held in the August of an election year.The delegates to that convention, in turn, were chosen at state conventions by delegates selected at local conventions,caucuses, or primary elections. They were usually pledged to a particular candidate. The delegates and the prospective candidates were usually political activists, party officials, or office holders. While this often resulted in control of the nomination process by so-called party machines, it also guaranteed that the candidates had a "track-record,"  an ideological orientation, and a cadre of supporters linked to the candidates by patronage or other "benefits."  They were, for better and worse, "professional politicians." (I was a delegate at the Illinois state Democratic convention in 1968, chosen by caucus in Coles County and pledged to Bobby Kennedy.) The saga of the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago is too well-known and complicated to be rehearsed here, but it led to a major overhaul of the nominating process at the next national convention in Miami.  These "reforms" were designed to lessen the influence of "professional politicians" and empower ordinary voters through a system of caucuses and primary elections. It also, as Patterson demonstrates, started political parties on the slippery slope toward irrelevance. Instead of the party picking its consensus nominee, the candidates themselves strove to capture the party's nomination, and to remake it into their own image and likeness. Whereas being a party regular used to be the sine non qua for nomination, it became increasingly more advantageous to package oneself as an "outsider."

In this "brave new world" of presidential politics, the communications media quickly emerged as the most effective way for would-be candidates to build a following. Starting with Jimmy Carter in 1976, they increasingly became what Patterson has dubbed "self-starters" or "political entrepreneurs." (One of the classic books on Chicago politics is We Don't Want Nobody, Nobody Jake Rakove. Carter was clearly the first "nobody" that "nobody sent," and he spawned many others.) According to Marvin Kalb, director of the Harvard Center for Presidential Politics and Public Policy: "With the demise of political parties, the press has moved into a commanding position as arbitrator of American presidential politics, a position for which it is not prepared, emotionally, professionally, or constitutionally." As such, the media is what Patterson calls a "mismatched institution." The press, electronic or print, is about "now," while politics is about setting the parameters for the next four years. The press is also about the unique and unusual, presidential politics is about conveying to voters a sense of security. (I remember from my high school journalism course that news occurs when "man bites dog." But everyday  life is about dogs biting people, and about which candidate will protect voters from all manner of "dog bites"--foreign and.  domestic).   

The gap in outlook between reporters and voters stem from what psychologists label as "a difference in schema." Patterson defines "schema" as a "cognitive structure that a person uses when processing new information and retrieving old information," a "mental framework the individual constructs from past experience that helps to make sense of a new situation." Schemas are one way of coping with complexity, a mechanism for understanding new information, a framework to organize and store it, to derive added meaning by filling in missing information, and to provide guidance in selecting a suitable response. Without such a construct to decipher the new, Patterson posits, "the world would be a buzzing confusion of unfamiliar information."  Moreover, people who see or hear the same phenomenon through different schemas literally apprehend differentrealities.

The dominant schema for for media types primarily revolves around "the notion that politics is a strategic game." Their favorite metaphors are the horse race or any contest in which the ultimate goal is "to win." To paraphrase the iconic Vince Lombardi, "winning isn't the most important thing. It is the only thing." They interpret campaigns as "contests in which candidates compete for advantage," in which they "play the game well or poorly." The candidates are merely "strategic actors" in search of personal advancement, material gain, or power, whose every move is therefore potentially "game changing." Their principal activities are calculating and pursuing alternating strategies for achieving "victory." Everything else--governmental institutions, public crises, policy debates--are noteworthy only in so far as they affect, or are manipulated by, "the players." As a game, politics is played before "spectators" and "umpires," who control the ultimate prizes, so that there is "an endemic tendency for participants to exaggerate their good qualities and explain away their not-so-good ones, to be deceitful, to engage in hypocrisies, to manipulate experiences (pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.) Ipso facto, it is the reporter's sworn duty to expose such transgressions and enlighten the "spectators" on what they just saw or heard. Their first instinct, according to Paul Weber, "is to look first to the game."

Increasingly, election coverage was "shoehorned" into the ubiquitous format that came to dominate what passes for "television news." The entire program is orchestrated around the "anchors," who set the overall mood, and coordinate the contributions of "specialists" in the weather, sports, human interest stories, investigative journalism, "on the spot" interviews, and "breaking news." Each of those segments are scripted to fit into specific time slots, interrupted frequently by commercials and casual banter among the anchors and the specialists. The television "personalities"increasingly become "celebrities" in their own right, as viewers tune it to watch their favorites, regardless of the substance of the information itself.  They are lionized at super markets,shopping malls, parades, and local sporting events. At the same time, the "on-camera face time" of the candidates has steadily shrunk, while their statements are reduced to increasingly miniscule "sound bites." Between 1968 and 1998, according to Patterson, the average sound bites of candidates shrunk from 42 seconds to 10, which is about as short as you can get. (I have edited several educational videotapes, in which we had to reduce ten hours of interviews into 35 minute narratives. And we were aiming for sound bites of two or three minutes in order to capture the gist of each person's 30 minute interview on a particular subject.)

The same general trend has infected the print media as well. Direct quotations from candidates or their surrogates constitute less than a fraction of the news story. The rest is distillation and interpretation by the reporter. Typical is the mainstream media's response to Obama's use of the word "bullshiter" to characterize Romney's rhetoric. According to The American Prospect, the word, "completely unknown in those Victorian sanctuaries known as newsrooms," quickly became the story of the day (or longer), no mean feat considering that neither reporters nor newscasters were bold enough to use the actual word itself  The shocking utterance became the story, not  the substance of the charge. "Things said once, in haste," the Prospect observed, "have come to mean more than the considered things candidates say and mean." The same holds true for the statements made by Republican candidates concerning the possible exemption to abortion in cases of rape. Do women really have the innate biological mechanism to prevent conception in such cases;should women who somehow become pregnant from rape have to accept that outcome as God's will? Instead of using such outrageous pronouncements as an opportunity to examine the real implications of party platforms on abortion and conception, the media concentrated on whether either candidate should be forced to withdraw, and the impact that their decision might have on the "contest." (I know, Mrs.Lincoln, but how did you like the play? The same magazine also published tongue-in cheek "New Rules For Campaign Reporter," which included not using "game changer" in a headline, not calling any singular poll as "the most game-changing moment in the entire election cycle," and refraining from comparing this election to others in the recent past. (Leave that task to historians whose retrospective interpretations cannot possibly influence the course of this election.)  "The power couple of the new media," according to the Prospect, is "Republican spin and instant journalism."  As Frank Bruni asserts in today's Times, "even the meteorological is political," with some soothsayers opining that Hurricane Sandy could hurt Obama by disrupting early voting and depressing turnout, and others that it could help him by "affording him the opportunity to look presidential as he marshals federal resources and directs the emergency effort." As if on cue, right-wing Republican Governor Chris Christie, an avid and highly vocal Obama hater until his state was devastated by Sandy, went on all three national TV networks, and even on Fox News, extolling the president's response as "outstanding" and "incredibly supportive." He even praised the work of FEMA, whose Bush era director, Michael "Heck of a Job, Brownie" Brown, accused Obama of acting too quickly and efficiently. Romney commented that it was "immoral" to spend federal money on disaster relief when the deficit is so big.       

And then, there is the constant rehashing of myriad polls, with little or no information about who was polled, how the sample was selected, what were the precise questions asked, and what was the agenda of the poll takers. My brother, who has a Ph.D in theoretical physical chemistry from Princeton and  tons of grants and publications, is also an avid interpreter of statistical summaries of everything from baseball to presidential politics. In his most recent email, he volunteers that the media in general "would  like to keep interest up in the election, so they do their best to make it seem that the race is closer than it is." Most pollsters," he continues, "are out to help one candidate or the other, or they have bad luck with their samples." The Democrats don't want their potential voters to think that Obama can win without them, while the Republicans are trying to inflate their own numbers in order to discourage those same potential Democrats. "Objectivity," he concludes, "has nothing to do with either side." The only pollster in which he has any faith is Nate Silver's "538 website" in the New York Times,because "he digests and analyzes all the other polls, and because "he seems to be objective enough to not let his personal biases interfere with his analysis (not easy)." His goal is "to be as accurate as possible so people will trust him in the future and he can still keep making gobs of money in this enterprise." In today's Times, Silver  asserts that the course of the campaign "seems awfully smooth for a wild ride," and that there is a "pretty good possibility, however, that our forecast in every state on Nov. 6 will be the same as it was on June 7."

The voters, perforce, look to a different--and often diametrically opposed--schema, which views politics primarily as a process for picking leaders and solving their problems. As they understand it, Patterson avers, real world problems, leadership traits, and policy debates are the key dimensions of presidential politics. They naturally care "who wins," but they view the outcome primarily in terms of the implications it has for them, personally and collectively. The common thread in the voter's schema is the broad question of governance.  In sharp contrast to what the media believe, voters "do reason, use premises to inform their observations, think what government can and should do, who and what the parties and the meaning of political endorsements. Their interpretations may vary enormously among themselves, and be the product of flawed information or understanding, but most regard the sturm und drang of presidential politics as real and substantive.

Of course, the game and governing schemas are intertwined, but in reverse order of importance. The quest for victory and power is obviously connected somehow to issues of leadership and policy, but the media frequently buries and distorts what the voters want to know. As the journalists spin it, the campaign often boils down to little more than a personal fight between candidates,where strategy and maneuvers are the decisive elements. They freely mix interpretation and facts into a hodgepodge; interpretation provides the theme, while the issues are used mostly for illustration. As with many things, Tocqueville had it right almost two centuries ago when he observed that "the campaign is sport and spectacle," and that the eye of the press "is constantly open to detect the secret springs of political design."

To prevent what is left of our democracy from becoming a total plutocracy, Patterson suggests two remedies that are both logical and redemptive, because they strike at the very core of the "game schema." They will,therefore, be vehemently opposed by those with a vested interest in the status quo.The first is scaling back the interminable nomination cycle. The second is to restore political parties to their pre-1968 role. He suggest several alternative methods of selection, but all of them would have to occur within a significantly shortened time frame--maybe beginning in April of the election year itself. Political advertising, both electronic and print, would be prohibited before that period. We would no longer be bombarded with the obnoxious barrage that saturates our TV screens from well before the first of the year.The problem to be overcome is the fact that the media would strenuously resist: the obscene amount of money unleashed by Citizens United really amounts to a gigantic subsidy for the television industry! Not only does the electronic media frame the parameters of the campaign, they also profit enormously by stretching it out as long as possible. Think of all the revenue they would lose during those three or four months, while the rest of us would be happily free from the never-ending barrage of political ads.

The difficulty in trying to restore political parties to their once central role is not only that the media and the plutocracy would ferociously resist, but that we would first have rebuild the parties themselves.. We currently have all the evils of party politics and almost none of the benefits. To quote political scientist Morton Grodzins our so-called parties are "without program and without discipline." In his cogent Where Have All the Voters Gone?, Everett Carll Ladd argues that they fail the critical tests of effectiveness: 1) to structure and regularize political competition, 2) to represent, with some degree of proportion, the various subdivisions of society, 3) to integrate and coordinate the activities of officeholders in the different levels and branches of government, and 4) to synthesize the plethora of opinions on a given issue into reasonably coherent policy options. These functions are best performed, Ladd asserts, when parties are able "to make elected officials act in some sense collectively--rather than individually--responsive to the electorate." Intentionally or not, according to Walter Dean Burnham, many of the "reforms" of the past century have produced a "class-oriented skewing of participation," and have thus, perhaps fatally, undermined "the only devices thus far invented by western man which, with some effectiveness, can generate collective countervailing power on behalf of the many individually powerless against the relative few who are individually and organizationally powerful." Most Americans have a "low level of investment" in politics. They are much more invested in earning a living, raising a family,participating in civic and religious organizations, keeping track of local affairs, and trying to squeeze in some recreation and entertainment. Millions of Americans are also "low-information" voters, who form their opinions from partisan TV ads, a single newspaper or TV station, or propaganda spun by "single-issue" organizations and publicists.         

Of course, the real barrier to either solution is MONEY!  Until we can find a way to overturn Citizens United, to refute the absurdity that "corporations are people" and that "money equals free speech" to institute public funding of campaigns, and to give the airways back to the people who really "own" them, there is little hope for the future of true democracy.


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