And that's what we find so depressing about the nearly two-year-long coverage of the current campaign. That huge, sweeping portions of it were devoted to nothing more than insider tactic talk. What a waste.
The trend actually seems to be intensifying (if that's possible) as we hit the homestretch. From Journalism.org:
The coverage is also taking on an increasingly tactical lens in the final days. Last week, attention to tactics and strategy-including McCain's invocation of the plumber to represent the working man-accounted for 26% of the newshole, making that general theme the biggest component of the week's election coverage. Coverage of these strategic aspects of the race included the fight over key battleground states (7%) and the parade of polls, including numerous daily tracking surveys, at 5%.
We think the survey actually underplayed the tactics count because it did not include all the debate coverage as part of that category, even though debate chatter is overwhelmingly tactics-based.
Meanwhile, note what's been left on the newsroom floor [emphasis added]:
The economic crisis and elements of the economy not directly related to that crisis combined for 13%. After that, all other policy discussions accounted for a total of 3% of the newshole. The subjects of health care, terrorism and security issues, Iraq, and Afghanistan, each accounted for less than 1% of the election coverage.
Open Left's Matt Stoller makes the case.
Responding to my last column, Eric Alterman says the reason the media obsessed over Barack Obama's ties to William Ayers while ignoring John McCain's relationship with Gordon Liddy is that McCain raised Ayers and Obama did not raise Liddy -- even though the recent media frenzy around Ayers began not with a McCain attack, but with a 2,100-word front-page New York Times article:
Liddy is not an issue because Obama never raised it; Ayers is an issue only because McCain did. The inverse to Foser's question: do you think the media would have found an education board Obama served on years ago, and tied him to the 40-year-old radical history of one of his many colleagues on that board, all on its own? After having been aware of the tangential relationship for many months, would the MSM have raised the issue and gone wall-to-wall with coverage in October 2008, weeks before the election, without the Republican Party pressing the issue? You know the answer.
That's a common explanation for disparate coverage of seemingly analogous situations, but I don't buy it.
The basic problem is that the theory relies on circular logic. How do you explain the disparate coverage of Ayers and Liddy? The Republicans are pushing the Ayers story and the Democrats aren't pushing Liddy. Well, how do you know the Democrats aren't pushing Liddy? Because the media isn't covering him as much as they're covering Ayers.
In this case, the assumption that Democrats haven't urged reporters to cover Liddy is shaky at best. The DNC hit McCain for his ties to Liddy in a press release as long ago as May. And they were promptly ignored. And others have brought up Liddy -- including Media Matters, repeatedly, in pointing out the double-standard the media was applying. More importantly: we don't know what people are doing behind the scenes. You can assume no one has been urging reporters to cover Liddy if you want; I think the much more realistic assumption is that some people are doing so.*
More broadly: Over the past several weeks, the media has swarmed to cover several McCain attacks - "lipstick on a pig," Ayers, ACORN, "Joe the Plumber," and more. All of those attacks got considerable coverage, driving the media's coverage of the campaign for days at a time. I can't think of a single Obama campaign attack that the media has rushed to repeat over and over again in the same way. It isn't that the Obama campaign isn't criticizing McCain. It is, every day. But the media hasn't entered feeding frenzy mode around those attacks. That's a blow to the "the media simply covers the campaigns" attacks" theory.
Alterman argues: "[T]he mainstream media frequently allows the campaigns to exercise almost total authority over campaign narratives. ... By ceding narrative and investigatory authority to the campaigns, the mainstream political press is rendering itself useless."
But this doesn't happen uniformly. The media cede far more narrative and investigative authority to Republicans than to Democrats. Even many reporters will acknowledge this - indeed, Alterman provides examples of reporters doing so. But they claim it is because Republicans are simply better at pushing negatives.
This, too, is circular. Who decides what gets coverage? Reporters. Why do reporters give more attention to GOP attacks? The attacks are better. How do reporters know they're better? Their attacks get more coverage.
The Republicans may be a bit better; there's no way to objectively measure that. But the gap certainly isn't large enough to explain the disparate coverage. If the media was really equally responsive to attacks from Democrats and Republicans, it wouldn't take the world's greatest political operative to sell a story as simple as "John McCain said he was 'proud' of a guy who plotted the murder of a journalist and urged people to shoot law enforcement agents in the head."
To be clear: I am not saying that disparate efforts by the campaigns (and others) to push the Ayers and Liddy stories have played no role in the disparate coverage those stories have gotten. I'm saying that is only one factor, and probably not the most significant factor.
* Sure, some will say: "But the Democrats aren't talking about Liddy publicly." First, enough people have invoked him publicly over the past few months - including a DNC press release - to cast doubt on that explanation. But more importantly: campaigns, party committees, and others push stories to reporters on background all the time. But if you insist that such things don't count, then how do you explain that 2,100 word front-page New York Times article about Ayers? Either GOPers working on background urged the Times to write it, in which case Democratic behind-the-scenes efforts to get reporters to cover Liddy count. Or the Times came up with the Liddy story completely on its own, which fatally undermines the "reporters just cover campaign attacks" theory.
While conservative pundits continue to distance themselves from her, it's interesting to note that Palin's candidacy was something of a conservative pundit creation, as Jane Mayer chronicles in this week's New Yorker. Specifically, boatloads of conservative editors traveled to Alaska last year (as part of readership cruises) and met with Palin and then left the Last Frontier as fans and media boosters.
One key group of editors were from the Weekly Standard. Here's Gawker's condensed version of that love affair:
The Standard brought William Kristol, Fred Barnes, and Michael Gerson to meet Palin. They all fell in love when she said grace really well and her daughter said something cute and then they took a helicopter ride and talked about how great it was to dump waste into lakes. Barnes went home and wrote a story about how she was so great. Kristol basically fell in love and began talking about her incessantly, all the time, until Chris Wallace told him to shut up.
Media Bloodhound detected it when Mitchell was discussing Obama's "remarkably negative ad" that featured McCain, in his own words, acknowledging how he had voted with President Bush "over 90 percent of the time."
Here was the full exchange on NBC. See if you can spot the obvious problems:
Tom Brokaw: Can they continue to tag John McCain with George Bush?
Mitchell: They can, and, in fact, they're doing it with a remarkably negative ad. I mean, we talk a lot about the negativity on the Republican side. But the fact is that Barack Obama has so much more money, and some of these targeted ads, one that they unveiled on Thursday and Friday of this week and it's on national television, has John McCain in his own words saying, in another interview, in another context, "I voted, I supported George Bush 90 percent of the time." So they've got him on videotape. And the fact is, that this ad is running and running and running. ...Yes, the robocalls are reaching hundreds of thousands of people, the negative robotic calls from the Republican side. But these ads are reaching millions and millions of people."
Asks the Bloodhound, "What planet is Mitchell on?"
MSNBC's Chris Matthews, responding to Rush Limbaugh's claims that Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama was all "about race":
"I don't know how you get into this tribalist talk. We could make all kinds of assumptions, but we have no knowledge of a person's inner beliefs. ... You know what drives me crazy? When somebody says "well, I know you're Catholic, so you must believe this.' Or 'I know you're jewish, you must believe this.' Or 'I know you're black, you must believe this.' Give us all a break, Rush. Let us think. Let us think. Let us decide."
That's quite a shift from April, when Matthews said:
What is the Catholic vote, Mike Barnicle? It isn't like a vote like, for example, if you're a Jewish voter probably you care about Israel, that's a safe bet. You have one key concern. I can't think of other groups that would make it that simple. But clearly, if you're African-American, you care about civil rights. You care about certain programs of the federal government. That's a generalization, but probably true. You're more progressive. But Catholics -- where would you put them? Is there a squirrel box or a rabbit hole you can put them in politically?
And from March, when he said of Obama: "this gets very ethnic, but the fact that he's good at basketball doesn't surprise anybody, but the fact that he's that terrible at bowling does make you wonder."
At least that's what the NBC anchor told students at Yale University last week:
"I've trained myself in twenty-six years in this business to not have [opinions]," Williams said in an interview following the talk. "I try to call as an umpire would - balls and strikes - and see it right down the middle."
Well, maybe college kids believe it. But we think Williams makes it very easy to pick up his political opinions.