Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Media gripe: Analyzing, not reporting

Maggie says:
I have endless gripes about the media, but my gripes about the media during campaign season are very specific. Here's my overarching pet peeve: media coverage of debates is all about who bested whom, and not about what anyone actually says, just like media coverage of campaigns is all about strategy and performance rather than about issues.

This morning on NPR, I heard all about the Giuliani-Romney spar during last night's Republican debate regarding who is the more fiscally conservative candidate. To recap, Giuliani said that while he was the mayor of New York he lowered taxes, whereas Romney raised taxes in Massachusetts. Romney immediately stepped in asking if he could rebut, and insisted that Giuliani needed to check his facts, because he actually lowered taxes while governor.

Now I couldn't be less interested in voting for either of these two candidates, but if I were a Republican listening to NPR's morning-after coverage, I might want to know who was right and who was wrong. Instead, I only heard the made-for-TV (errr... radio) moment of Romney interrupting Giuliani and some pondering about how Fred Thompson wasn't the lead news angle that morning despite the fact that it was his first debate as a candidate.

So as a hypothetical Republican voter, I've not heard one thing that might help me decide who to vote for. Again. One might think news organizations would do a quick fact-check so that their immediate follow-up could be the real story behind both Giuliani and Romney's claims. But no. It's all strategy and performance, all the time.

We see this non-stop with Democratic coverage as well. The past two weeks have been full of news stories about how Hillary Clinton is increasingly being described - by other news organizations - as the Democratic front-runner. Let's take a moment with that one: media coverage about the Democratic race is largely about how one candidate is being covered as the front-runner. It's emptiness feeding emptiness, and the machine that produces hype perpetuating itself. This is how elections are won and lost, and it's absolutely sad.

Here's what I want:

1. During "debates," a term I use very loosely, I'd like an immediate fact-checker there with a computer to tell us when someone's bullshitting. I want someone to immediately squash spin with statistics and then make candidates accountable for their claims on the air. This shouldn't be difficult - cable sports shows do this kind of on-air fact-checking all the time. Why can't we quality-control presidential debates as seriously as we do sports debates?

2. I don't want any more coverage of disagreements between candidates about their records without some follow-up reporting on the issue they're disagreeing about. If the issue is important enough for candidates to bring up during a "debate," it's important enough to get that issue right for the voters. For example: NPR should play the Romney-Giuliani clip, then immediately follow up with: "Now here's what their records actually are..." The resulting headline, then, becomes the fact that one of the candidates was misrepresenting his record, not that he was interrupted on-air.

3. I want better issues coverage. I'm tired of endless pondering over who's ahead, who's behind, why someone's doing something, and what that implies. Occasional, thoughtful think-pieces on strategy would be great, as long as they're a strategy check-in from the everyday, routine coverage of candidates' platforms and records and actions on the campaign trail. I appreciate the important role of analysis in journalism, trust me. But I don't appreciate the fact that day after day we're served entrees of analysis made mostly from speculation and only a tiny side of real news.

Overly simplistic, I know. But hey, we operate in a day when I also use quotes to describe the "White House Press Corps." How far we've fallen.

By the way, the NY Times deserves kudos today for digging into the Romney-Giuliani spar, as reporters should. Of course, this happened on their political blog The Caucus and not in their actual newspaper, where the mainstream reporters are paid to write. And yes, that's part of the problem as well. Fact-checking and truth-seeking are now activities best left to bloggers, while the "real" political reporting is the territory of well-known journalists and their insider, political consultant sources.

According to The Caucus, both Giuliani and Romney were mistaken last night. The Times blog gives us the facts and tells us why each was overhyping their record.

Maybe the answer is that these "debates" need to be run by bloggers. Hmmm....