September 2, 2004 in Opinion

Media have duty to untangle issues

The Spokesman-Review

Here’s what political professionals and the media believe about American voters. You’re stupid. You don’t care about issues. You’re too self-absorbed to free your mind and control your emotions. You want the election to play out like a movie, the kind with endless chase scenes, limited dialogue and no character development.

So, it’s no wonder that the presidential campaign has dissolved into disingenuous charges and countercharges that dominate the headlines. Take the last two days. Please.

In a televised interview, President Bush noted that the war on terror is different from a traditional war and thus there may not be a specific moment where victory can be declared. He was a bit inarticulate, and the Kerry camp pounced. A grateful media envisioned a plot twist and the resulting headlines were:

“Bush Says War Not Winnable.” “Kerry Bashes Bush’s Defeatism.” “Bush Says U.S Will Win War.” “Kerry Says Bush Flip-flops on War.”

Folks in the Kerry camp don’t believe their charge, but they hope you do. And besides, they say, they were the victim of this nonsense, too. And that’s true. Kerry made a comment about using “sensitivity” in the war on terror. It was quickly yanked out of context, fed to reporters and the headline mills churned out: “Kerry Seeks Sensitive War on Terror.” Then the Kerry camp dug up old Dick Cheney speeches where he invokes the need for sensitivity. And the Gotcha! Press cranked up again.

Campaigns will continue this charade as long as the media play along. It’s true that stacks of studies show that more voters base their decisions on superficial generalities than issue-driven specifics. A recent article in the New Yorker analyzes these studies and concludes that voters, in general, are political dunces: “The fraction of the electorate that responds to substantive political arguments is hugely outweighed by the fraction that responds to slogans, misinformation, ‘fire alarms’ (sensational news), ‘October surprises’ (last-minute sensational news), random personal associations and ‘gotchas.’ ”

Campaign pros know this, and that’s why they peddle smears and false scandals. But that’s no excuse for the media to act as a conduit. Yes, issue-oriented coverage might bring in lower ratings and bore more readers, but journalists have a duty to illuminate, not entertain.

The devolution into “gotcha” campaign coverage just reinforces politicians’ instincts to stick to scripted responses. Under these conditions, candidates would be stupid to think aloud … to express doubt … to offer nuanced positions on difficult issues … to be, well, human.

The media complain all the time about talking points, limited access and superficial speeches, but politicians are merely reacting to the “gotcha” mentality that has infected reporting.

After the ugly presidential election of 1988, the media vowed to take back control of campaigns by putting the voters’ interests front and center, forcing politicians to respond. The idea was for issues, not personal destruction, to drive election coverage.

Sixteen years later, the media have sunk back into the mud with the thought that you, the voters, won’t mind as long as there is plenty of popcorn.

Is that true?

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email