08 September, 2008

The Media is Not a Mirror

Now that Matt Ygs is no longer on the Atlantic's payroll, he's free to stick it hard to Marc Ambinder. Ambinder:

No blowback, though: the electorate doesn't seem to penalize campaigns for deliberately distorting the record of their candidate and their opponent. It's probably an artifact of twenty years' worth of campaign advertisements and has something to do with the way consumers process news.
But couldn’t it have something to do with the way the campaign press reports news? ... So where’s the narrative about how McCain’s key strategy introducing Sarah Palin to the public and turning his campaign around is based on putting lies at the heart of the presentation? There are a few dozen people, of whom Marc is one, in a position to create this narrative. They’ve chosen not to do so, but that’s a decision they’ve made not a fact about “the way consumers process news.”
The positive point is that a small but significant fraction of the electorate seems astonishingly inured to misleading charges and negative attacks. They seem to understand that charges are false, but they don't seem to penalize the offending candidate.
All I was observing is that it’s perverse for members of the press to make claims about how dishonest campaign tactics are likely to play that treats themselves as non-participants in the process. Creating false beliefs in the public about yourself and your opponent is politically helpful. But acquiring a reputation as a liar is politically damaging. And the public gets a lot of information through the press. Thus, the political impact of telling a lie will have a lot to do with how the media chooses to cover it. If John McCain’s decision to release an ad that contains a thoroughly debunked lie about his running mate’s record was greeted with lead stories on network news about John McCain has a reputation as a straight-talker but really he’s a big fat liar, that would be bad for McCain. But they haven’t covered it that way.
Marc Ambinder sees himself and his friends in the press as a purely reflective surface. The electorate decides how to view the candidates and the issues, he just reports it. Ezra has more:
It's sort of like a TV show: If Friends had had an episode where Ross and Rachel hooked up, but never mentioned it again, that would've been weird, but their tryst wouldn't have been a big part of the story. Since they mentioned it all the time, and came back to it, and fit future events into that context, it was a big story. Similarly, if the press reports something and never mentions it again, the public knows to forget it. It's not important. If they mention it constantly -- "I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it" -- they know it is important. The job of the media, in other words, is now to also emphasize the right parts of the story.

This requires deciding what matters. And on this, people have different opinions. Take the Bridge to Nowhere, which Ambinder mentions in his post. I think it's important that one of the central arguments the McCain campaign is making for Palin is a lie. I think that should be reported a lot, at least as often as the McCain campaign repeats it, and then if the McCain campaign doesn't stop repeating it, their lying should be emphasized a lot, because that's also important. On the level of first order principles, I know the press agrees with me, because they did this with John Kerry. The crucial problem in this discussion comes here: The press isn't allow to admit that they construct these narratives at all, and so can't transparently justify why they choose to use one and not another. Which creates mistrust and anger.


Cassady said...

This is exactly why Republicans should never be allowed to complain about the "liberal media" being unfair. At all. Ever.

The media--even the liberal outlets--hold Obama to a pretty high standard, and the sheer amount of coverage he gets shows that. It's not fawning if reporters are simply talking about what he's doing and why it's important.

On the other hand, the Republicans are/were seeing less coverage. Meaning that all of the deceptions, misrepresentations of records, and other little foibles are not getting the play time they deserve in favor of bombastic statements of moral authority and inundating chants of "U-S-A."

If the liberal media wanted to do some damage, they should do the Ross/Rachel thing and talk about those facts ALL THE TIME.

Elliot said...

Right. Obamacentric versus Obamaphilic. Two very different things. If the media really wanted to hurt McCain, they would cover McCain constantly.

But really, they want to cover what is sensational - and lo and behold, recently the coverage has been almost completely focused on Palin.

Cassady said...

It also appears to me that the McCain campaign is trying to use language to redefine what it means to be the "agent of change." His "maverick" thing has been pretty successful so far, and now he's trying to use that as the basis that he is for change.

Apparently all that is required, in his mind, for someone to be qualifies for the presidency is that they buck their party sometimes.

I DON'T CARE ABOUT THAT. So what if you buck your party--all that shows is that the party you generally agree with is WRONG about a substantial number of issues.