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?

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Media, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bill H says:

    I have always found the fascination with Elizabeth Edwards to be somewhat mystifying. I have never heard her say a single word that seemed even remotely weighty to me, other than some rather airy echoing of her husband’s policies. This latest op-ed is just more of the same.

  2. Hal says:

    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.

    I’m going to buy you a copy of No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice. What you are saying that what we have in the market is the revealed preference of what we wanted. Something that is quite provably an error in reasoning on your part, James. From Slee’s book

    The prisoner’s dilemma shows how, as soon as one person’s choice alters the outcome for another person…choices do not reveal preferences…instead of thinking about choices as revealing preferences, it pays to think of choices as ‘replies’ to the actions or likely actions of others. The best choice you can make is the best reply to the likely actions of others.

    and here’s an example from the book

    Faced with the observation that few children walk to school anymore, we commonly hear that this tendency represents our preferences: that “people won’t walk” anymore. But this is oversimplified. What we are seeing is one equilibrium among many, and perhaps not the best one. There is an equilibrium in which no one wants their children to walk along empty streets, and so no children walk, but there is another equilibrium in which many children enjoy walking with groups of other children, and parents feel safe about their children because there is safety in numbers on the busy sidewalks.
    …Too many cities have concluded that empty sidewalks are a result of our preferences…but once a city takes it as a given that most children will be driven to school, there is no need for the city to even build sidewalks in new subdivisions, and there is more temptation to build fewer, bigger schools rather than more, smaller, easily accessible schools. With these decisions, the empty-sidewalks equilibrium becomes even more entrenched: we are trapped in an outcome that was the result of individual choices, but that may not represent our true preferences.

    I really wish those on the right would stop this characterization of “you asked for it and we just gave you what you want”. It’s far more complicated than that. And when you just throw that back as a rejoinder to someone’s argument it just looks like you simply don’t get it and haven’t taken the time to actually think about what you’re saying.

  3. Hal says:

    subscribe

  4. James Joyner says:

    Hal: I don’t doubt that some people want something other than what most people want. But, for example, despite the near universal availability of PBS’ “Newshour,” which gives far more in-depth treatment of the issues and far less treatment of what you and I would consider fluff, the audience that exists for televised news gravitates toward the crappier broadcasts at the Big 3 or even the less widely available cable outlets like CNN, Fox News, and so forth.

    Similarly, USA Today was derided as “McPaper” but it has a much higher market share than WSJ or NYT. And People gets more readers than the Economist. These are revealed preferences, not a result of choices being fousted on people.

  5. Hal says:

    James, you’ve literally just made exactly the same argument you just made – i.e. you’ve added zero additional information to your argument. As Henry said when taking down McMegan on a similar issue

    This is really very silly. In general, revealed preference arguments which don’t refer to some external set of motivations rely on circular argument and other forms of shoddy logic (see further Amartya Sen’s Choice, Welfare and Measurement on this). More specifically, as Robert says, vulgar revealed preferences claims, like the one that Megan is making here, completely ignore how strategic considerations impact choice. If the choices that individuals make are interdependent, as they self-evidently are here, then observed behaviour tells us diddly-squat about the preferences individuals would have if they didn’t have to take account of others’ behaviour.

    You’re simply looking at the end state and saying “see? that reveals what you wanted”. Which is a belief that is, as I’ve said, quite demonstrably false. One only has to look at the prisoner’s dilemma to see how choices made by local actors will produce results they did not want. According to your logic, the criminal wanted the maximum penalty.

    Seriously, James. It’s a very short book. Send me your address via email and I’ll have it shipped today. I guarantee that even if you don’t agree with me, it’ll change your viewpoint on revealed preferences.

    Oh, and make sure to see Alex’s review over at the Marginal Revolution in case you think us lefties are too biased on the issue.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Alex seems to think the book is mostly silly, no? I’m happy to take a look at it, though.

    I’m reasonably familiar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma game but don’t see how it’s relevant here. Why do the choices of others to watch network news with crappy content make it harder for me to watch Jim Lehrer? Why do the choices of others to read People make it harder for me to read The Atlantic Monthly?

    I get why other people’s desire for “If it bleeds, it leads” impacts my ability to get different content on a given outlet. But I don’t get why that isn’t a revealed market preference rather than some kind of shell game.

  7. Donna Hughes says:

    If Joe Biden were the Democratic nominee now, the republicans wouldn’t be licking their chops about the prospect of running against EITHER Hillary or Obama! But early on, here in Iowa, the democrats decided that they wanted to “make history” rather than to nominate the most qualified candidate.

    Obama says he doesn’t want to play “tit-for-tat” politics, but he and Edwards were attacking Hillary early on, and the media covered them because of it. Although Joe Biden repeatedly came off very well in the debates, he could get no traction because he was not on the attack, except for the occasional comment about Rudy G. only using “a noun, a verb, and 911” in a sentence. Otherwise Joe Biden didn’t exist. Never mind that he is the respected Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Never mind that he doesn’t take corporate backing. Never mind that he is known for reaching across the isle to get legislation passed. Never mind that he has forgotten more about foreign relations than Hillary or Obama can even suspect exists……….
    Don’t tell me that the media hasn’t played a BIG part in this farce!

  8. spinnikerca says:

    “It is 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?”

    Isn’t that a bit circular? There was never much chance because press never mentioned them, or Ron Paul, as other than ‘fringe’ candidates, playing on the idea that it is better to vote for a worse candidate who ‘has a chance’ than the one you’d really want if press says they don’t have a chance (and how do you know they wouldn’t if press didn’t say that?)

    I used to get two print newspapers, the wall street journal and the LA Times. Now I get the LA times on Sunday for the classified ads, and don’t even bother with the entertainfomercials passing for news. If I want news (which I do, I’m a news junkie) I search for it on the internet.

    News reporting is no longer satisfactory precisely because you try to decide ‘what we should care about’ instead of just giving the facts and letting us decide for ourselves.

  9. Bithead says:

    Elizabeth Edwards…..

    Look, let’s be honest enough to note that her biggest (mostly unspoken) implication was that were the press to have done it’s job, of in her view focusing on the substance, “I Feel Pretty” would still be in the hunt for the White House. (I suppose it arguable that it would have been an improvement over who the Democrats ended up with)

    What she (And her husband) fail to recognize is the rather obvious conclusion… that the substance Edwards and her Husband offer, simply put, isn’t gathering the interest of the electorate, and that if it wasn’t for what she considers divergences from the ‘real issues’, the voters wouldn’t have had any interest in her husband’s candidacy at all.

  10. Hal says:

    Alex seems to think the book is mostly silly, no?

    He has issues, ranging from minor to serious. As do I (although not nearly as well informed, I’m sure). The relevant point here, though, is the idea that we get the press that we want and that if we didn’t why aren’t the alternatives doing better (using PBS as the example). Alex’s only issue with the book on this particular point is that choices sometimes do reveal preferences which is – like – duh.

    I’m reasonably familiar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma game but don’t see how it’s relevant here

    I thought I was, too. However, after reading Slee’s book I was astounded by how many scenarios map to this simple game. As to your particular points about how other’s crappy choices make it harder for you to watch/read the choices you can make, that isn’t the point. The issue is that people’s choices aren’t revealed in the skew of the news. Rather, it’s a reply to the news that’s offered. As to why they didn’t choose Jim Lehrer or the Atlantic Monthly, there are myriad of reasons having precisely nothing to do with the quality of the news involved and the issues discussed. The mistake I believe you are making is that you are vastly simplifying the problem by saying that the resulting spread of market offerings reveals that they don’t want that “stuff”.

    But I don’t get why that isn’t a revealed market preference rather than some kind of shell game.

    Hopefully when the book arrives you can give us your critiques and we can see if Slee has answered your questions or simply wasted your time 😉

  11. bains says:

    If Joe Biden were the Democratic nominee now, the republicans wouldn’t be licking their chops about the prospect of running against EITHER Hillary or Obama!

    Or Bill Richardson (before he fell into the LOVE BARACK camp) But withstanding both your and Hal’s objections, the press is only reflecting the proclivity of US voters (and their market share of viewers/readers, if truth be told).

  12. Bithead says:

    No, Bains, be precise… the press is only reflecting the proclivity of Obama voters. Think about it; Obama has gotten to rock star status. What kind of controversy would surround a Rockstar do you suppose, and how would it differ from what issues have been covered in the press as regards Obama?

  13. barfly says:

    No, Bains, be precise… the press is only reflecting the proclivity of Obama voters. Think about it; Obama has gotten to rock star status.

    And they love Obama so much, the press is self-censoring McCain’s comments (and offering post-interview explanations of what he really meant to say).

    Yup, they’re a bunch of groupies – for McCain.

  14. Bithead says:

    So, they’ve not been doing that for Obama?
    they’ve not, for example been running blocker for him on the Wright thing?

    Comon’….

  15. Roz says:

    Folks, Elizabeth was correct. In a society where we have freedom of the press, I do not want to see the press control what goes and doesn’t. I was a Biden supporter. He didn’t make any huge mistakes. He was smart, great in the debates and had real meat for answers. He actually fleshed out his answers and people who heard him, liked what they heard. The press should not act like some “dreamy fan” of political candidates; they should give fair coverage to all candidates. Honestly, I was absolutely stunned at the favoritism the news media gave to certain candidates, as though they were covering movie stars. They acted as close to a special interest group as I have ever seen. It may smart, but quit covering the huge mistakes you, the media, made in this campaign. It has been so disheartening. Don’t think you are giving what people want — that’s not your job. You should know better. Free Press — that’s all we wanted. Stop defending your bad behavior!!! You go Elizabeth!!!

  16. andrea says:

    The media does lack coverage on the issues. It is why this campaign has followed in the footsteps of others, focusing on senseless gossip instead of who is going to be running this country.

  17. Robert in BA says:

    Bithead came up with that “I Feel Pretty” nickname all by himself. No one in the media turned him on to that one. (snark)

    The media IS complicit.

  18. Bithead says:

    So reporting what’s happening is complicity.
    Eric Blair, call your office.