How far off the rails has coverage of the electoral process gotten, and how did it get there? Let's start by asking a few papers what went on last night when the Democratic candidates got together to debate. How did it look down at the Freep?Gloves come off, sparks fly as Super Tuesday nears
Biff! Thwack! Tough stuff, huh? What say you, St. Pete Times?Clinton, Obama debate gently
Uh ... Palm Beach Post?Clinton and Obama attack Republicans instead of each other
You there in Des Moines?Obama, Clinton forgo nastiness for some niceties at L.A. debate
Newsday?Cheek to cheek
You can fairly ask whether the papers were watching the same debate. But it's pretty clear that they were at least watching the same candidates:Bare knuckles for Clinton, Obama
Chattanooga Times-Free Press, 1/23Obama, Hillary take off gloves
Chicago Sun-Times, 1/22Democrats make nice during debate, but gloves come off on SaturdayLas Vegas Review Journal, 1/16
Of course, the gloves were coming off across the aisle too:Huckabee takes off gloves when Thompson calls him ‘liberal’
AP, 1/12GOP rivals take off the glovesWashington Times, 1/7With gloves off, Romney distortsManchester Union Leader, 1/2
Pretty clear what we mean -- except when the opposite cliche means the same thing:Trailing rivals, Edwards puts on glovesCharlotte Observer, 11/1
As George Orwell suggested six decades ago in "Politics and the English Language," when one critic says a work's outstanding feature is its "living quality" and another points to its "peculiar deadness," you can be pretty sure they aren't talking about any feature that has a concrete referent in real life. That, I think, is what's been wrong with the deeply unsatisfying (if you'd like to say "generally inept and irresponsible," go right ahead) coverage of the nominating process. The big heds, and the big centerpiece packages, aren't about substance. They're about myth.
That's not the same as the much-decried "horse race" coverage. True, the horse-race aspects are grossly overreported, and in many cases distorted beyond recognition by reporters and editors who really ought to be cudgeled about the face and head with a basic stats text,* but they're not by definition irrelevant. The real problem is summed up in this Observer lede from three weeks ago:A Democratic donnybrook. A Republican showdown. Potential last stands.
Those are among the story lines in South Carolina's upcoming primaries.
The "story lines" are myths -- not in the sense of fabrications, or tales of merrie England's music thyng and ye grene knight, but stories that express a society's "prevailing ideals, ideologies, values, and beliefs."** Right when we ought to be telling stories about substance, we end up telling stories about stories instead. That's how "the most wide-open presidential race in a half century," as the AP described it Dec. 27, could be blown wide open by Iowa, and again by New Hampshire and ... excuse me, Michigan, what was that?Romney blasts GOP race wide openDetroit NewsRomney win keeps race wide openCharlotte ObserverRomney’s Michigan win blows open GOP field ahead of S. Carolina primaryColumbus DispatchMich. win leaves race wide openRaleigh N&O
So the same event either blew or didn't blow the (already wide open or not) race wide open -- just as "taking the gloves off" is another way of saying "dancing cheek to cheek" (and "putting the gloves on" is either the same as taking them off or some sort of Forbidden Tango). There's no connection between the reporting and any sort of event or process that might have some real impact on voters' ability to form and express their preferences.
Is it all just harmless newspaper dumbitude? Not really. The trouble with myths is that they suck up all the air in the room. South Carolina becomes exclusively a tale about the dilemma of the black woman: Black candidate or female candidate? It's a relevant question, sure, but it elbows out others that are equally, perhaps more, relevant: Do black women in South Carolina have a unique set of interests that might be best served by, say, a white male candidate who supports universal single-payer health insurance? Or, to pick another myth from the Democratic side, why is the change-vs.-experience debate about two first-term senators, rather than the distinction between genuine international experience and sexually transmitted foreign-policy expertise?
There are myths with more and less substance, just as there are "issues" with more and less substance (say, whether Romney's church thinks Jesus spent spring break in Cancun* vs. Huckabee's desire for a King James version of the Constitution). But the "horse race" vs. "issues" debate tends to be binary: If something isn't about the horse race, it must be an Issue. What we seem to have been left with this year is a bunch of myth that looks like issues only by virtue of not being all horse-racy. That's a start, but it isn't much of one.
I don't mean to suggest that the current lineup of horses for each major party would have looked any different if it had been set in June, rather than at the end of January. But I do think the public agenda could have looked significantly different -- perhaps including a wider set of perspectives on health care, and almost certainly including a more substantive role for international relations (including but not limited to a bigger ongoing emphasis on Iraq, whose shrinkage on the agenda is alarming) -- if campaign reporting had rejected the culturally consonant story lines and assigned a bigger role to the so-called "second tier" of candidates. Don't say that's not our job; the effect is called "agenda-setting," and if we don't do it consciously, we're stuck with what we do unconsciously.
We're not going to get the whole thing fixed for this election cycle, but a couple of fairly easy steps could make a substantial improvement:
1) Default play for all debate stories is 30 inches, inside A, 2/3o/2, no art. That gives you enough room to report what people actually say, thus reducing the temptation for summary pugilism ledes; eliminates the risk of clueless label heds; and avoids spending space on repetitive illustration. (You can see why the HEADSUP-L consulting calendar is already full-up with cutting-edge newspapers.)
2) Stories about story lines are to be summarily spiked, no appeal.
3) Boxing, racing or other sports metaphors carry a minimum penalty of three weeks' answering the phone in sports on Friday and Saturday nights, starting 90 minutes before legal last call in the jurisdiction in question and continuing until the last bar bet is settled.
4) Writers who blame "pundits and polls" for repertorial ineptitude will sit a 90-minute exam in quantitative research methods. (Closed book, calculators allowed.)
Whayathink? Should we start a revolution?* Your sommelier recommends Williams & Monge, "Reasoning with statistics: How to read quantitative research." Heavy enough to make an impression, light enough not to leave scars.** Jack Lule's explanation, from "News as Myth," in Rothenbuhler & Coman's "Media Anthropology" (2005).*** Why that's any weirder than His mom's visit to Guadalupe is a question for other travel agents.