Press Not Doing Its Job?
Elizabeth Edwards, who despite no public policy credentials other than having been married to a one-term senator and yet oddly seems to get op-ed space in the major papers whenever she requests it, has a rather strange editorial in today’s NYT whining about how the mainstream media is failing in its duty to inform the public.
The first several paragraphs make the silly argument that the press covers only the drama of the race and ignores the issues, with the effect 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.” This, frankly, is nonsense. There’s so much information out there that it’s virtually impossible for those who can’t devote full time to immersing themselves in it to read it all. And who are these people who are simultaneously starving for information about Joe Biden’s health care proposals and yet lack Internet access? Presumably, there are people who are poor and don’t work in a connected office who are interested in public policy. But there’s always the public library.
Interspersed in this is a more interesting, if not particularly novel, complaint: That the press decides who the legitimate candidates are.
What’s more, the news media cut candidates like Joe Biden out of the process even before they got started. Just to be clear: I’m not talking about my husband. I’m referring to other worthy Democratic contenders. Few people even had the chance to find out about Joe Biden’s health care plan before he was literally forced from the race by the news blackout that depressed his poll numbers, which in turn depressed his fund-raising.
Who is responsible for the veil of silence over Senator Biden? Or Senator Dodd? Or Gov. Tom Vilsack? Or Senator Sam Brownback on the Republican side?
The decision was probably made by the same people who decided that Fred Thompson was a serious candidate. Articles purporting to be news spent thousands upon thousands of words contemplating whether he would enter the race, to the point that before he even entered, he was running second in the national polls for the Republican nomination. Second place! And he had not done or said anything that would allow anyone to conclude he was a serious candidate. A major weekly news magazine put Mr. Thompson on its cover, asking — honestly! — whether the absence of a serious campaign and commitment to raising money or getting his policies out was itself a strategy.
This is fair enough. Then again, Thompson was a more plausible contender than Dodd or Vilsack or Brownback for the same reason that Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and Barack Obama — are relative novices — were. It’s a Catch-22: Candidates with name recognition and decent poll numbers are deemed legitimate enough to warrant press coverage but without press coverage it’s very hard to build name recognition and poll numbers.
Then again, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul managed to do so.
The press, while holding a certain public trust, is ultimately not a collective but rather a myriad of private businesses that together form a web. Do we really expect the Big 3 networks, already losing viewers at a rapid rate, to devote their 8-12 minutes of nightly political coverage equally among all declared candidates? Or to spend it on the eye-glossing details of Joe Biden’s health plan rather than the interesting kerfuffle of the day?
Similarly, newspaper circulation is declining in almost every market. Papers have more space to devote to features than the television networks and, sure enough, they provide more in-depth coverage. But how often are they supposed to print charts comparing the health plans of the various candidates? If they do so once, are they good? Or must they do so repeatedly to reach occasional readers or those who happened not to read that particular edition?
Here’s the thing: If the public displayed an appetite for these things, the businesses would cater to it. Instead, readers demand more comic strips, horoscopes, recipes, movie listings, gardening tips, “human interest stories,” “good news,” and so forth.
At the same time, though, the incredibly tiny minority of us who are interested in public policy have more ability than ever in human history to get that information in as much detail as we want, as often as we want, and at a time that is convenient to us. That’s a pretty good trade-off.
John Edwards, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Mitt Romney, and the others lost, not because the press didn’t cover them properly but because the public looked them over and didn’t see them as “presidential.” It’s probably true that most people couldn’t tell you much about the health plans of these guys. But, really, who cares? There was never much chance that these people would be president. Why waste your time reading their white papers?