January 10, 2008

The Pathetic Fourth Estate

[Click on the cartoon to see the original, full-sized image.]

Shoddy reporting and vapid punditry caught the national press corps with its pants down at the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. Hillary Clinton, written off for dead after Barack Obama's victory in the Iowa caucuses last week, emerged at the front of the Democratic pack, despite the wishful thinking of know-nothings like Bill Kristol and the savage and obsessive slandering of the infuriating Chris Matthews.

Glenn Greenwald has been on a tear about this very topic of late, and he has several posts worth reading (here, here, and here) on the utter failure that is mainstream political reporting. Mr. Greenwald rightly points out that overheated bloviation on the "horse race" is what passes for substantive reporting, and that lost amid the press' adolescent dislike for Hillary Clinton and its futile efforts at fortune-telling, real issues and real stories remain hidden from public view.

For instance, did you know that, according to one poll, the Democratic candidate who has gained the most ground in the past several weeks is John Edwards? More than likely, you did not, as the former senator from South Carolina has steadily garnered new support while both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have remained essentially flat. Chances are, however, that you know either about a $400 haircut he was reported to have gotten several months ago, or that he is "angry," but not much about his positions on the issues or proposed policies.

The past several years have been eye-opening with regard to the laziness, indolence and pack mentality that is endemic to a large majority of mainstream reporting, and it is rare that a day goes by when the incompetence, crassness and venal stupidity of a big slice of our national press corps isn't on display. Keep an eye out for it if you haven't noticed it already; here are some of the signs:
  • Stories focused solely on personality traits, appearance and demeanor, with a special contempt reserved for candidates labeled "angry"
  • Articles about how the press enjoys one candidate's company or dislikes that of another
  • Predictions, predictions, predictions with short shrift given to the here and now
  • Talking about how the candidate spoke, rather than what he or she spoke about
  • A dearth of information on candidate platforms, positions, policies or past performance (See the example from Time magazine I highlighted in A Voter Guide for the Tiger Beat Crowd for a particularly egregious example.)
So with more debates and lots more primaries for both parties queued up, what can we expect? Probably a whole lot more of the same attention to the frivolous, the rabble-rousing and the inane at the expense of honest discussion of real issues. (For instance, as the video below points out, more than 2,700 questions have been asked of the presidential candidates; three of them have been about climate change.) With the attitude revealed in this exchange between Tom Brokaw and Chris Matthews on the heels of the press' crow-eating in New Hampshire, it's probably naive to expect better.

But we should demand it.

MATTHEWS: Tom, we're going to have to go back and figure out the methodology, I think, on some of these [polls].

BROKAW: You know what I think we're going to have to do?

MATTHEWS: Yes sir?

BROKAW: Wait for the voters to make their judgment.

MATTHEWS: Well what do we do then in the days before the ballot? We must stay home, I guess.

BROKAW: No, no we don't stay home. There are reasons to analyze what they're saying. We know from how the people voted today, what moved them to vote. You can take a look at that. There are a lot of issues that have not been fully explored during all this.

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