Yesterday‘s overlong column recounted techniques of African American voter suppression and asked why so few people know about things like this (and so much else).
The answer, I maintained, is the press.
Rather than make that case myself, I turned it over to Paul Krugman and a column he wrote for the New York Times. Some of you took the day off from work or canceled your travel plans to read it all. Others of you have come back today to read it now. For that second, sensible group, here (again) is Krugman’s July 30 column in the New York Times:
Under the headline “Voters Want Specifics From Kerry,” The Washington Post recently quoted a voter demanding that John Kerry and John Edwards talk about “what they plan on doing about health care for middle-income or lower-income people. I have to face the fact that I will never be able to have health insurance, the way things are now. And these millionaires don’t seem to address that.”
Mr. Kerry proposes spending $650 billion extending health insurance to lower- and middle-income families. Whether you approve or not, you can’t say he hasn’t addressed the issue. Why hasn’t this voter heard about it?
Well, I’ve been reading 60 days’ worth of transcripts from the places four out of five Americans cite as where they usually get their news: the major cable and broadcast TV networks. Never mind the details – I couldn’t even find a clear statement that Mr. Kerry wants to roll back recent high-income tax cuts and use the money to cover most of the uninsured. When reports mentioned the Kerry plan at all, it was usually horse race analysis – how it’s playing, not what’s in it.
On the other hand, everyone knows that Teresa Heinz Kerry told someone to “shove it,” though even there, the context was missing. Except for a brief reference on MSNBC, none of the transcripts I’ve read mention that the target of her ire works for Richard Mellon Scaife, a billionaire who financed smear campaigns against the Clintons – including accusations of murder. (CNN did mention Mr. Scaife on its Web site, but described him only as a donor to “conservative causes.”) And viewers learned nothing about Mr. Scaife’s long vendetta against Mrs. Heinz Kerry herself.
There are two issues here, trivialization and bias, but they’re related.
Somewhere along the line, TV news stopped reporting on candidates’ policies, and turned instead to trivia that supposedly reveal their personalities. We hear about Mr. Kerry’s haircuts, not his health care proposals. We hear about George Bush’s brush-cutting, not his environmental policies.
Even on its own terms, such reporting often gets it wrong, because journalists aren’t especially good at judging character. (“He is, above all, a moralist,” wrote George Will about Jack Ryan, the Illinois Senate candidate who dropped out after embarrassing sex-club questions.) And the character issues that dominate today’s reporting have historically had no bearing on leadership qualities. While planning D-Day, Dwight Eisenhower had a close, though possibly platonic, relationship with his female driver. Should that have barred him from the White House?
And since campaign coverage as celebrity profiling has no rules, it offers ample scope for biased reporting.
Notice the voter’s reference to “these millionaires.” A Columbia Journalism Review Web site called campaigndesk.org, says its analysis “reveals a press prone to needlessly introduce Senators Kerry and Edwards and Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, as millionaires or billionaires, without similar labels for President Bush or Vice President Cheney.”
As the site points out, the Bush campaign has been “hammering away with talking points casting Kerry as out of the mainstream because of his wealth, hoping to influence press coverage.” The campaign isn’t claiming that Mr. Kerry’s policies favor the rich – they manifestly don’t, while Mr. Bush’s manifestly do. Instead, we’re supposed to dislike Mr. Kerry simply because he’s wealthy (and not notice that his opponent is, too). Republicans, of all people, are practicing the politics of envy, and the media obediently go along.
In short, the triumph of the trivial is not a trivial matter. The failure of TV news to inform the public about the policy proposals of this year’s presidential candidates is, in its own way, as serious a journalistic betrayal as the failure to raise questions about the rush to invade Iraq.
© The New York Times
The Unofficial Paul Krugman Web Page – which archives Krugman’s past columns and media appearances – posted a noteworthy reaction to this column, along with Paul Krugman’s response:
JIM MURPHY, executive producer, “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather”: The entire staff of the “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather” was pretty miffed after reading Paul Krugman’s column today that claimed not a SINGLE issues piece has aired on the big newscasts in the past two months. He must have missed the SIXTEEN different “issues” pieces we did over a four week period during that time, part of a series that will continue until the election. With the resources of the New York Times you would think that would be kind of difficult to miss. The Washington Post‘s media critic found the series so intriguing amid all the debate over campaign coverage he actually wrote an article about it. How can anyone take an editorialist’s arguments seriously when he ignores some FACTS completely?
PAUL KRUGMAN: In response to Jim Murphy’s comment regarding my July 30 column on the absence of issue coverage in this election, and the “miffed” staff at CBS Evening News . . . Mr. Murphy apparently misread what I said. I did not say that there has been no issue reporting at all over the past two months; I said that issue coverage is very thin, and that there has in particular been no clear explanation of even the most basic elements of the Kerry health care plan.
That statement is, alas, true. The CBS evening news report from June 29 was the best coverage of the competing health care plans I could find. But did it explain that the Kerry plan would cover most of those now uninsured? No. Did it explain that the plan would, according to the Kerry campaign, be financed by a tax-cut rollback? No. In fact, by giving time to Bush claims that “the Kerry plan would break the bank,” without mentioning Kerry’s plan to pay for it with a tax-cut rollback, the CBS report conveyed the false impression that the plan is unfunded pie in the sky.
Bear in mind that this is not one among many issues: health care-cum-tax cut rollback is Kerry’s signature domestic policy proposal. Yet a voter who gets his or her news from TV, even CBS with its “issues” series, would have little or no idea of what Kerry is offering, or how it differs from Bush.
But I’ll bet not two Americans in ten (I concluded yesterday) will miss the reference if you mention ‘the blue dress.’
So, to sum up, two problems (at least) imperil a healthy democracy going into this election: African Americans being discouraged from voting, and voters being discouraged from thinking.
It’s going to work out, I believe – we’re going to win. But we would win bigger if more people knew what was going on.
Quote of the Day
In 1800, 75% of [an American's] working man's expenditures went for food alone. By 1850, that had dropped to 50%. Today it is a little more than 11%.~The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 1996
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