April 23, 2008

Holding the Media Accountable


Tuesday's Democratic primary in Pennsylvania did not determine whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will claim their party's nomination. When a clear winner does finally emerge - and in all likelihood it will not be until the convention in August - one of the more interesting (and potentially frustrating) questions will be what kind of press coverage the presidential contest receives in the run-up to November. Current reporting is largely dominated by Senators Clinton and Obama, but as journalists move to compare the Democratic and Republican nominees, early indications are that the quality of said reporting is in serious doubt unless the public keeps pressure on the media to both exhibit an even hand and focus on the issues that matter.

To date, for instance, Senator McCain has enjoyed coverage that is difficult to describe as anything other than "extremely friendly." He is routinely portrayed as a straight-talking maverick foreign policy expert with a reputation seemingly unassailable, no matter how many times he misstates the relationship of Sunni Muslim al-Qaeda to Shi'ite Muslim Iran or makes claims about the economy that are demonstrably untrue (see video below). The fact that Mr. McCain divorced his first wife after she suffered serious injury in a car accident in order to marry his current, extremely wealthy spouse - with whom he had been carrying on an extramarital affair - or that he was at the very center of the Lincoln Savings & Loan scandal hasn't seemed to matter. While new developments about Senator McCain's apparent influence peddling continue to be unearthed, Senator Obama in particular has had to deal with insipid "issues" like his bowling score and use of the word "bitter" to describe some voters in Pennsylvania.

Likewise, the Arizona senator's pandering to religious extremists John Hagee and Jerry Falwell goes unchallenged - as does the fact that his supposed anti-lobbyist stance is clearly at odds with both past actions and the staffing of his campaign - but his counterpart from Illinois has been forced to repeatedly address a relationship with firebrand preacher Jeremiah Wright (who is, by the way, a former Marine) and the fact that he has met ex-Weather Underground bomber William Ayers a couple of times in passing. Mr. McCain's longstanding, cozy relationship with the press establishment - extending even to a barbecue for reporters at his house that clearly swayed stories about him - has to date been unshakeable.

Even with a tradition of tabloid coverage that saw 2004 candidate John Kerry mocked for windsurfing and 2000 contender Al Gore falsely smeared as a serial exaggerator who claimed to have invented the internet, the degree to which Democrats have been peppered during this election cycle with nonsense "gotchas" like Sniperfiregate and Lapelpingate and other infuriating wastes of journalistic energy has been exceptional. Nothing better exemplifies the press's obsession with the trivial and the meaningless than ABC News' widely derided presidential debate last week, in which no policy issues at all were discussed during the first 53 minutes of what became a two-hour tribute to the lowest common denominator. But with close to 20,000 comments on its debate blog page excoriating the network for this abysmal performance, as well as more than one open letter to the moderators, there are mildly encouraging signs that the public is both more aware and increasingly intolerant of bias and substandard coverage.

While there are certainly things about which to criticize Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, the presence or absence of American flag pins on a candidate's lapel (Mr. McCain is often seen without one as well, but that fact has yet to be made controversial) clearly falls into the realm of the absurd. Likewise, Senator McCain might grill a mean rack of ribs, but the fact that his proposed tax plan would result in even more massive deficits than under President Bush; that, as a life-long recipient of government insurance, he has shown himself to be woefully out of touch with the health care concerns of most Americans; or that there is substantial evidence that he is tempermentally unsuited for the presidency, should be kept in mind - along with everything else mentioned above - whenever encountering stories about the "straight-talking maverick" from Arizona. Now more than ever, it is incredibly clear that the press cannot be taken at face value, and that single-sourcing of one's election year political information is a recipe for disaster.

What remains to be seen is whether, once the run for the White House is whittled down to two candidates, mainstream media outlets will respond to market demand, or continue the outright collusion with the current rightwing power structure that began with Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush. Although past performance cannot reliably forecast future results, it is the only remotely predictive input available to us, and unfortunately, it strongly suggests continued imbalance in the coverage that will be "enjoyed" by the eventual nominees. With that in mind, it will be more important than ever to be vigilant in holding news outlets accountable for the way they report (or fail to report) on important issues, and it will be even more crucial for Americans - who have a very spotty history in this regard - to actively seek out and learn what they need to know.

Who can tell? Maybe the country has been beaten down and pushed around enough in the last eight years to make it happen. One can only hope...

3 comments:

lokywoky bitter hussein said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the sad state of affairs - the MSM has already 'anointed' McCain as the heir apparent - and no matter what he does or doesn't do - he gets a pass. Whichever Dem winds up with the nomination should be under no illusions that they will receive even partly even-handed treatement. We can expect more of the same, piled higher and deeper, and if we are lucky and the people of this country are very very smart - we may yet wind up with someone who is actually capable of doing the job (one of the Dems of course!)

PBI said...

lbh,

Thanks for stopping by again!

Interestingly, it appears that at least some of the media are starting to respond to the persistent hue and cry over McCain's special treatment. (Not enough, but some of them.) I think that, with the widespread, low public opinion of the press, there is a cetain amount of popular receptiveness toward holding them accountable for the abysmal job so many of the major news organizations do.

My hope is that between general disgust with the Bush GOP, the ongoing realization that significant elements of the mainstream media are, by and large, a big part of the problem, and the increasing availability of information from non-traditional sources, we may finally see a shift in the coming weeks. Probably not to the degree we'd like, but enough to make a difference.

PBI

lokywoky bitter hussein said...

I certainly hope so. I think it will take more concerted actions like the one FireDogLake started about some of this where people write to their LOCAL papers on the topic. That effort apparently generated over 14,000 letters to over 400 newspapers. We must do more of this.

Media Matters just had an article on their weekend summary about how the media was destroyed by Nixon and everyone on the right that followed him - and that it is going to really take some doing to get them to be responsible again. I'd link it for you but it's an email and I'm no techie so I really don't know how. It's the May 9 weekly summary. Maybe you can uncover it at their website.

Anyway, I enjoy reading your stuff. Keep up the good work. Is it okay if I link to your blog from mine from time to time?

http://lokywokys.blogspot.com

Thanks!