Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gee, this looks like a story

Here's an item for consideration as we ponder the vagaries of campaign coverage and political journalism. An interesting discussion of international relations took place yesterday, but if you weren't lucky or obsessively attentive, you could easily have missed it entirely.

It got pretty good play at the Beeb, none that I could see at Fox or CNN, none at the Freep (which I read on dead trees) or the Obs (which I read online). The AP seems to have ignored it entirely, and it rated two grafs at the end of a Times campaign story. No hint of it over at McClatchy, which was busy being remarkably stupid:

Obama, also in Scranton, ate waffles at a local diner — perhaps some symbolism to remind voters of his claims that Clinton often changes positions on key issues, such as the Iraq war.

Anyway, here are two candidates discussing the appropriate response to a hypothetical Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. Which one is the seasoned foreign-policy veteran, trustable with those late-night phone calls, and which one is the naif? Here are the quotes, per the Beeb:

"If I'm the president, we will attack Iran... we would be able to totally obliterate them. ... That's a terrible thing to say, but those people who run Iran need to understand that, because that perhaps will deter them from doing something that would be reckless, foolish and tragic."

"Using words like 'obliterate' -- it doesn't actually produce good results, and so I'm not interested in sabre-rattling."

Here's the elided part of the quote, per the NYT (which doesn't seem to see any need to quote the candidate who -- how to put this? -- seems capable of passing the introductory seminar in Having An International Clue):

''I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran. In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.''

The concern here isn't so much whether the media system is providing lots and lots of political information. It is. But there's a vast gulf between relevant information -- like whether one candidate is fairly sane while the other is a raving nutter, or whether Hillary Clinton's Mideast policy is actually identical to Charles Krauthammer's -- and the sort of stuff that floods the zone before each electoral contest and is picked over to death afterward.

So if you thought, say, the lapel/flag thing had been relegated six months ago to some distant Siberia where Fox News is taken seriously, you have some room to be concerned. Somehow, that hard-working media system failed to take advantage of the six-week break between voting matches. It's still fitting data into story lines, rather than fitting story lines to data (or, better, discarding the things altogether). The frames that organize storytelling about the Democratic campaign remain essentially unchanged: the Song of Innocence against the Song of Experience, or the candidates are indistinguishable on policy issues (neither being true, as today's example underscores). When news comes along that actually reflects -- oh, policy or something, rather than whatever facet of the Epic Battle is on the little minds today, it tends to be ignored. That doesn't bode well for the system.


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