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Sep 11 / Great Apes

OK Team Political Media, Time To Step Up Your Game

A week ago Politico ran a story called Reporters: We loathe 2012 campaign.  It was about how many people covering the Republican and Democratic bids for the White House are finding the campaigns to be boring to cover, lacking intrigue or interesting stories.  Among their complaints were lines like the following:

“This is worse than normal, a lot less fun, and it feels impossible for us to change the conversation


Reporters feel like both campaigns have decided to run out the clock with limited press avails, distractions, and negative attacks, rather than run confident campaigns with bold policy platforms or lofty notions of hope and change


“The fact is, we are under-covering the economy, we are under-covering — but you cover the campaign that is in front of you

Emphasis in those quotes added by me to highlight something I’m going to get to a bit later in this post, but keep that line of thought in mind as we proceed.  Reporters also complained about the general speed of the news cycle and the need they feel to keep up with Twitter (they say that they really do need to, I think it’s something dumb that they’ve convinced themselves of).

* * *

Let’s talk about something else for a minute.  It’ll all tie together, just stick with me for a bit.  On the second night of last week’s Democratic National Convention the keynote speaker was Bill Clinton.  His speech was quite long and it was filled with concrete facts and economic statistics.

The speech was a huge hit.  Slate’s “snap poll” of immediate reactions found that nearly twice as many respondents believed Bill Clinton gave the best speech of the convention in comparison to Barack Obama – and Obama himself was elected largely on account of his skill at oration.  Additionally, 56.8% of respondents said they were more likely to vote Democrat after hearing Clinton’s speech.  A Gallup poll also found that voters were impressed by Clinton, as 56% said his speech was either “excellent” or “good”;  this compares to 43% for Obama and 38% for Romney.  Even among Republicans 58% said Clinton’s speech was either “excellent”, “good”, or “OK”!  Some of that may come down to the fact that it’s easier for voters to say that they like a politician of the opposing stripe once he’s left office, but the gap here is so big that I think a lot of it really did have to do with the quality of Clinton’s speech.

It wasn’t just voters who enjoyed Clinton’s speech;  a wide range of political reporters and columnists were impressed too.  The Atlantic has a good collection of responses.  What was one of the most common themes among the reactions?  That Clinton succeeded because he trusts voters to be able to pay attention to and understand the details of policy.  American reporters/commentators in my Twitter feed overwhelmingly expressed that opinion.  Jon Stewart ran a segment the next night expressing joyous confusion over the substance of Clinton’s speech.  Under the headline “Why Bill Clinton’s Speeches Succeed” Atlantic correspondent James Fallows opened with the following sentence “Because he treats listeners as if they are smart,” before continuing to explain exactly how he does that.  Over at The Washington Post, Ezra Klein approvingly called Clinton “Wonk-In-Chief”.  Over at the conservative National Review, Rich Lowry said “I wish someone had given this sort of speech at the Republican convention” because he “like[d] the instinct to make a wonky case for the president on substance”.

People sought out Bill Clinton’s speech too.  The combined view count for the top 3 most viewed videos for “bill clinton dnc 2012” on Youtube have Clinton’s speech being viewed by 4.75 million people.  Compared that to Barack Obama (3.9 million) or Mitt Romney (about a million) or Clint Eastwood (3.4 million).

So the speech was a huge success.  Pundits loved it.  Democrats loved it.  Republicans respected and were even a bit impressed by it.  And the reason they all loved it was because he had the audacity to hope that voters would want to know what the people who want to run their country would actually do if they were put in charge.

* * *

What does this have to do with the Politico article I talked about above?  The political journalists I (/Politico) cited above complained that the current campaign was lacking in detail and that they wished the campaigns would talk more about policy.  They said that they had no power to change the conversation.  And yet all it took was one speech from a former President and everyone was talking about policy.  And not only were they talking about policy, they were talking about how much they all loved talking about policy.  It turns out that people really do want to hear that.  And they want to talk about it too.

So I’ve got an idea: if the political media wants a discussion about policies, then the political media needs to have that discussion itself.  If Paul Ryan won’t answer questions about what his budget proposals contain, do some digging and find out!  Call some experts, crunch some numbers, tell your readers what Ryan won’t!  The always reliable Paul Krugman has talked about this issue a number of times but it virtually never gets mentioned in mainstream reporting.  If reporters started talking in every article relating to Romney/Ryan about how Ryan’s budget plan would actually increase the deficit I’ll bet they’d feel the need to start talking about those issues pretty quickly.  They might even start answering direct questions from reporters about those issues.  This is the power that the media does have to change the conversation.  Bill Clinton already showed you that you like that kind of thing and they showed you that voters do too.  Use that power!

The truth is that politicians can get away with spinning the media only because the media allows itself to be spun.  If politicians are never made to answer for their claims (or worse, never forced to make claims to begin with!) then they know that they can benefit from being hopelessly vague.  But the media can change that.  There’s a ridiculous focus on “balance” in the media, a sort of false objectivity that has nothing to do with truth and everything to do with elevating subjectivity, but even within that framework there’s a lot that can be done.  Write an article about how Ryan’s budget plan would increase rather than decrease the deficit.  Consult the work done by the Tax Policy Center and the Congressional Budget Office and report on what they’ve said about the Ryan budget.  Ask the Democrats to talk about it; I’ll bet you’d have no problem finding someone in the Democratic Party willing to tell you what they think is wrong with Ryan’s budget.  And if the Ryan/Romney team won’t talk about it?  If they won’t answer questions about it?  Run the article without them.  Say that they refused the chance to provide clarifications or explanations.  Run with that work over and over again.  You don’t think Romney/Ryan will feel the need to start providing some kind of rebuttal once that information gets widely circulated?  Of-fucking-course they will.  The political media can make that happen.

I’ve only talked about the Ryan budget plan so far, but reporters could do this for all kinds of issues.  Not enough talk about Obama’s plans for Afghanistan?  Then write articles about what he’s done so far.  Talk about the troop surge.  Talk about how the situation is still a mess.  Talk about how the pull-out from Iraq has failed to result in any increased stability in the region.  Talk about what Obama has the military doing in Yemen or Somalia rather than leaving Jeremy Scahill to single-handedly cover these topics at The Nation.  Ask the politicians what they’ve learned from the mess the U.S. created in the Middle East.  Make them answer.  Talk about the issues until they have no choice but to get involved in that conversation or allow their chances to be (re-)elected to rest on someone else’s framing of the issues.

The political media says it wants those conversations.  It praises Bill Clinton for trying to have them.  It talks about how much voters appreciate being treated like policy matters, and they do.  Tired of boring campaigns without enough conversations about substantive policy matters?  Then there’s only one thing for the political media to do: go make those conversations happen.

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