Media Leave Voters in Dark: Bowling 1, Health Care 0
This piece, written from Chapel Hill, is reprinted from The New York Times. The writer is the wife of former Sen. and presidential candidate John Edwards, who grew up in Robbins.
For the last month, news media attention was focused on Pennsylvania and its Democratic primary. Given the gargantuan effort, what did we learn?
Well, the rancor of the campaign was covered. The amount of money spent was covered. But in Pennsylvania, as in the rest of the country this political season, the information about the candidates' priorities, policies and principles -- information that voters will need to choose the next president -- too often did not make the cut.
After having spent more than a year on the campaign trail with my husband, John Edwards, I'm not surprised.
Why? Here's my guess: The vigorous press that was deemed an essential part of democracy at our country's inception is now consigned to smaller venues, to the Internet and, in the mainstream media, to occasional articles.
I am not suggesting that every journalist for a mainstream media outlet is neglecting his or her duties to the public. And I know that serious newspapers and magazines run analytical articles, and public television broadcasts longer, more probing segments.
But I am saying that every analysis that is shortened, every corner that is cut, moves us further away from the truth until what is left is the CliffsNotes of the news, or what I call strobe-light journalism, in which the outlines are accurate enough but we cannot really see the whole picture.
It is not a new phenomenon. In 1954, the Army-McCarthy hearings -- an important if painful part of our history -- were televised, but by only one network, ABC. NBC and CBS covered a few minutes, snippets on the evening news, but continued to broadcast soap operas in order, I suspect, not to invite complaints from those whose days centered on the drama of "The Guiding Light."
The problem today unfortunately is 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.
Did you, for example, ever know a single fact about Joe Biden's health-care plan? Anything at all? But let me guess; you know Barack Obama's bowling score. We are choosing a president, the next leader of the free world. We are not buying soap, and we are not choosing a court clerk with primarily administrative duties.
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 fundraising.
Veil of Silence
And it's not as if people didn't want this information. In focus groups that I attended or followed after debates, Joe Biden would regularly be the object of praise and interest: "I want to know more about Senator Biden," participants would say.
But it was not to be. Indeed, the Biden campaign was covered more for its missteps than anything else. Chris Dodd, also a serious candidate with a distinguished record, received much the same treatment. I suspect that there was more coverage of the burglary at his campaign office in Hartford than of any other single event during his run other than his entering and leaving the campaign.
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.
I'm not the only one who noticed this shallow news coverage. A report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy found that during the early months of the 2008 presidential campaign, 63 percent of the campaign stories focused on political strategy while only 15 percent discussed the candidates' ideas and proposals.
Watching the campaign unfold, I saw how the press gravitated toward a narrative template for the campaign, searching out characters as if for a novel: on one side, a self-described 9/11 hero with a colorful personal life, a former senator who had played a president in the movies, a genuine war hero with a stunning wife and an intriguing temperament, and a handsome governor with a beautiful family and a high school sweetheart as his bride.
And on the other side, a senator who had been first lady, a young African-American senator with an Ivy League diploma, a Hispanic governor with a self-deprecating sense of humor and even a former senator from the South standing loyally beside his ill wife. Issues that could make a difference in the lives of Americans didn't fit into the narrative template and, therefore, took a back seat to these superficialities.
News is different from other programming on television or other content in print. It is essential to an informed electorate. And an informed electorate is essential to freedom itself. But as long as corporations to which news gathering is not the primary source of income or expertise get to decide what information about the candidates "sells," we are not functioning as well as we could if we had the engaged, skeptical press we deserve.
Future Not Bright
And the future of news is not bright. Indeed, we've heard that CBS may cut its news division, and media consolidation is leading to one-size-fits-all journalism. The state of political campaigning is no better: without a press to push them, candidates whose proposals are not workable avoid the tough questions.
All of this leaves voters uncertain about what approach makes the most sense for them. Worse still, it gives us permission to ignore issues and concentrate on things that don't matter. (Look, the press doesn't even think there is a difference!)
I was lucky enough for a time to have a front-row seat in this campaign -- to see all this, to get my information firsthand. But most Americans are not so lucky. As we move the contest to my home state, North Carolina, I want my neighbors to know as much as they possibly can about what these men and this woman would do as president.
If voters want a vibrant, vigorous press, apparently we will have to demand it. Not by screaming out our windows as in the movie "Network" but by talking calmly, repeatedly, constantly in the ears of those in whom we have entrusted this enormous responsibility. Do your job, so we can -- as voters -- do ours.
Elizabeth Edwards, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the author of "Saving Graces."
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