Academics And PoliJournos

The terrific political-science journal The Forum has three interesting essays in its new issue, dealing with politics and media. In one, Greg Marx, formerly of the Columbia Journalism Review, compares political media resistance to academic insights to sports-journalism resistance to sabermetric insights. In another, two academics, Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan and John Sides of George Washington University, offer suggestions for how academics can help political journalists do their job. In the third, Shanto Iyengar of Stanford University writes that online media has given candidates an upper hand in the battle to subvert media coverage.

All three are smart, interesting, and make useful points. They are all also rather badly misguided, and offer a great excuse for me to proffer my own thoughts on the matter.

I've been doing journalism for more than 20 years, and have had the opportunity at various times to cover, among other things, politics, criminal justice, business, information technology, and healthcare. I can tell you that in just about every field, the academics believe strongly that theirs is the topic covered by the media most erroneously, most superficially, and with the least understanding of academic insights. (Professionals also always believe that their field is the worst covered, and that's true in politics as well.)

I was at a criminal-justice conference several years ago, where a roomful of academic researchers essentially lectured a panel of four top crime reporters, from four of the most prestigious daily newspapers in the country, how they should do their jobs. The panelists were far nicer than I would have been.

A lot of the problem stems from what I call "defensive reading." People have a tendency to read things relating to themselves, their organizations, their industries, or their areas of expertise defensively. They infer meanings that aren't there. They inflate the negatives or opposing arguments, while minimizing the positives and supporting arguments. They exaggerate the number and reach of articles they think are damaging or leave erroneous impressions. And so on.

A great example of this came several years ago, when the New York Times ran an op-ed, with a chart, by Daniel Glover, then of National Journal, about bloggers working for campaigns. The piece was not accusing bloggers of impropriety (although it did note that some had been slow to disclose their campaign work on their blogs); in fact, Glover explicitly couched the piece in a different context: that one might expect these bloggers to be crash-the-gates outsiders, yet here they are starting to become part of the system. Nevertheless, much of the progressive blogosphere went ballistic, slamming the Times and Glover for falsely accusing bloggers of deceit, conflicts of interest, and so on. They read the piece defensively.

(One could argue that this lengthy blog post is an example of me reading the Forum articles defensively. That's probably true.)

Getting back specifically to politics and journalism, first let me note that the academics tend to make a few common mistakes. First, they make really broad generalizations, without differentiating types of media and journalism, which makes it really hard to see what the actual problems are and what might be done to address them.

And, with apologies for comparing smart, serious people like Nyhan and Sides to a tool like Bernard Goldberg, here's something I wrote about Goldberg's most recent book a couple of years ago:

If indeed the presidential election cycle featured an incredible, blatant bias oozing constantly from purportedly objective journalists, one would imagine the examples would be piled in thick stacks upon the desk of the man who makes his living chronicling that phenomenon. Reporters like the New York Times' Adam Nagourney, CBS News's Cynthia Bowers, CNN's Dana Bash, USA Today's Jill Lawrence, the Associated Press's Beth Fouhy, the Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet, the Washington Post's Dan Balz, the Los Angeles Times' Peter Wallsten — just to name a few off the top of my head — each filed hundreds of reports during the presidential campaign cycle. Wouldn't you start there, rather than with Whoopie and Winfrey?

I realize that the essays at hand aren't intended as full-scale analysis, but when Nyhan and Sides trot out a New York Times TV columnist as one of their few examples, or when Marx uses the Nation's Eric Alterman, it's hard to take seriously the idea that they've identified a wide-spread problem.
My sense is that there are two things, very broadly, that bother the polisci academics -- and understandably so. The first is the appearance of jackassery in what we might call the 'punditry media' -- the programmed shows on MSNBC, FOX News, and CNN; syndicated columnists; and so forth. The second is the overall impression of jackassery that accumulates from more 'journalistic' media coverage.
Let's take the "jackass punditry" one first. You can't help but have sympathy for the academics on this one. But the mistake is to see this as a flaw, which those shows would gladly correct if they understood. That is not so.
In fact, let me make a point that will seem cruel to the Ezra Kleins and Nate Silvers of the world, who Marx points to hopefully as signs of progress for "journalism that is informed by political science."
It's important to bear in mind a few things about the three big national "news networks." They are not news networks, at least in their regular programming; they are niche political-programming networks. Like the Food Network or Sci-Fi Network, they succeed via the economies of scale involved in casting a nation-wide net for the relatively rare fish who will tune in to political programming -- an audience that is decidedly unlike normal people, and who are tuning in not so much to gain information, and more to feel part of the political conversation.
And each of the three networks' audiences are looking for something different from the others. (Obviously this is all wildly overgeneralizing -- but that's necessary for programming a national network.)
The FOX News audience, for instance, tend for various reasons to feel that the intellectual and cultural elite are deliberately squelching the truth, so those viewers respond well to hearing their own opinions echoed and validated by "ordinary" people -- uneducated hosts like Hannity and Beck; Frank Luntz's panels; pseudo-celebrities -- and by people who have, in a sense, "escaped" from the other side -- minorities, former Democrats, and young women.
CNN viewers -- and the major-network Sunday morning audience -- tend to have less need to have their opinions validated, and are more invested in feeling in-the-loop. Hence the endless line of insider Beltway pundits, journalists, politicos, and consultants.
MSNBC viewers, I would argue, really like to have their opinions validated as intellectually superior to those of everybody else. Hence, the preference for nerds. That is, people with an aura of academic or intellectual bona fides -- Rachel Maddow, I mean seriously, with the exception of Ed Schulz,
I would suggest that those folks, and others Marx mentions, like Jamelle Bouie and Jon Chait (he also cites my brother Jonathan Bernstein), have reached their current levels of 'mainstream' exposure not because they get things right more than others, but because of the particular dynamics at work with the marketplace
......Collective guilt. I tend to think that one of the main problems academics have with coverage of their field of expertise is the sense that in the aggregate, media coverage tends to give certain false impressions about what is important, or common, or causally related. Criminal-justice researchers, for example, argue that coverage of certain types of violent crimes, or crimes with certain types of victims, gives the public the perception that those types of crimes are far more prevalent than they actually are, or that they are on the rise when they are actually declining. Well, OK, but that's neither the fault nor the intention of the paper covering a crime that is genuinely newsworthy and that people are genuinely interested in. Similarly, Nyhan and Sides decry that "much ink was spilled" over '08 campaign events, like Hillary Clinton's answer about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, that "misleads readers about the factors that drive political outcomes." Maybe so, but Clinton's answer was a genuine piece of campaign news for its own sake, which campaign reporters rightly wrote about. Criticizing those journalists -- the crime or campaign reporters -- or suggesting they change their reporting methods, is misdirected.
The "point" of journalism.
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