Dumbo Journalism

dumbo.JPGWhat happens when political journalists entirely give up on covering policy? CNN today featured a segment on “Queen Kong” vs. “Barack-zilla,” perhaps inspired by Samantha Power’s faux pas (or Nicholas Mosley’s great novel?). “Experts agree” that Obama is a Mac and Clinton a PC. Maureen Dowd notes that one of the Democratic frontrunners has been compared to “Ma Barker . . . [tapping] into the angst of blue-collar women who know they have to ignore their ‘moping men and . . . hold the house together.’”

But the nadir may be this piece by Jeff Greenfield offering a new metaphor for the2008 presidential election: Barack as Bugs Bunny, and Hillary as Daffy Duck. Voters in general prefer the “Bugs” candidate, but this recondite analysis can give rise to some complications:

The Bugs-Daffy dichotomy gets intriguing when you try to apply it to the general election. If Clinton pulls out the nomination, it will be Daffy vs. Daffy. There is no doubt that John McCain takes on politics with a Daffy-like suspicion of the corrupt, feckless folks about him. If Obama prevails in the primaries, we will have a dramatic Bugs-Daffy face-off. And it may be that McCain will be the candidate to break the losing Daffy pattern, because he’ll be able to argue successfully that in a dangerous world, you need a president more in touch with the dark side of human nature. . .

Eugene Volokh questions the validity (or scalability?) of the Bugs/Daffy theory; I’m just wondering, is this the best political journalists can offer? Caricatures of caricatures?

I wouldn’t be so tough on Slate if it weren’t for a Jack Shafer column effectively celebrating the worst trends in political coverage. Horserace coverage merely focuses on who’s up, and who’s down, and the (often superficial) ways in which candidates win or lose a news cycle. Shafer doesn’t worry if reporters don’t cover issues; he complacently sees the campaign as merely a matter of positional competition:

Critics of horseracism complain that it isolates on poll results and reports from campaign rallies to the exclusion of discussions of political “substance.” . . . .But even if the press corps had abandoned substance, no voter is more than a mouse click away from detailed policy papers and unfiltered campaign speeches by the candidates.


Of course, reporters should never forget that their subjective impressions of the voters’ subjective impressions are … subjective, and that reporters are as fallible as anybody. But these subjective impressions also convey essential information that helps voters decide which candidate will govern best.

Such as? The “essential information” that if the press doesn’t like a candidate, the candidate is unlikely to succeed? That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, not objective reporting.

Ironically, establishment journalists rejected a real alternative to horse-race mania–the civic journalism movement–back in the 1990s because they claimed that extensive coverage of issues would amount to media bias. Since the media have to decide which issues to cover, that selection itself could unduly influence elections. But in the name of an illusory objectivity, journalists like Shafer and Greenfield now wield far more power than they ever could as responsible reporters of candidates’ policy positions. Their unjustified (and often unjustifiable) perceptions–of who’s “presidential,” who has “experience,” who exudes “gravitas,” who’s too young or too old to be president, who “you’d like to have a beer with”–end up crowding out useful observations of what a given president or party would actually do for the country.

I really enjoy Slate, and I listen to most of its podcasts. So it pains me to comment on the decline of political reporting there. The vast compendium of policy reporting (such as a great series on the health care plans of the candidates) that truly distinguishes the site rarely seem to get integrated into its Politico-style meta-commentary on perceptions of perceptions in the presidential race.

To his credit, one Slate journalist (Timothy Noah) has questioned the legitimacy of a punditocracy all too easily sliding between roles as reporters, commentators, and de facto kingmakers in the primary process. Unless the talking heads start focusing more on policy and less on strategy, they should expect increasingly strident critiques like Glenn Greenwald’s–who’s gibed that “real work, active investigation [and] critical thought [are] the mortal enemies of most establishment reporters.”

You may also like...