Media, Academia, & Politics

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; I highly recommend them. (Sorry no link; subscription required.) They are all also rather badly misguided, and offer a great excuse for me to proffer a few of my own thoughts on the matter.

[Update: Here is the link to The Forum -- you can read individual articles by registering, without subscription. Also, here is a pdf of the Nyhan-Sides article -- again, I want to highly recommend reading it, as it contains plenty of terrific thoughts that I don't discuss here.]

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 most erroneously, most superficially, and with the least understanding of academic insights.

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.

It’s not just academics: professionals (including those in politics) also usually believe that their field is the worst covered. Basically, the closer you feel to a topic – your line of work, your favorite sport, whatever – the worse your opinion of the media on that topic.

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.

(One could argue that this lengthy blog post is an example of me, as a political journalist, reading the Forum articles defensively. There's probably truth to that.)

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 Marx, Nyhan, and Sides to a dimwitted tool like Bernard Goldberg, here's something I wrote about Goldberg's most recent media-bias-blasting 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 these Forum essays 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.

Does most political coverage proceed in ignorance of even the most basic insights from academia? Undoubtedly. Does this mean, as Marx concludes in his essay, that journalists need to “rethink what [their] job entails?” Really, really no. Certainly not if they want to have jobs.

One of the problems, I believe, is that academics making these media criticisms think there is a “point” to journalism that is being ill-served. A major theme running through both Marx and Nyhan-Sides is the argument that political journalists would cut way back on writing about certain types of campaign events, if they understood that academics know those events will not ultimately affect the election. Nyhan and Sides decry, for example, that "much ink was spilled" over '08 campaign events, like Hillary Clinton's answer about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants; this "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 (an actual sliver of policy dispute among the Democratic candidates, and on a hot-button topic!) which campaign reporters rightly wrote about. Criticizing those journalists – whether the crime or campaign reporters -- or suggesting they change their reporting methods, is misdirected, not to mention in this case completely out of touch with most criticism of political journalism, which decries supposed over-infatuation with “horserace” coverage of “factors that drive political outcomes.” (All three of these Forum essays strike me as weirdly hyper-concerned with media coverage of what does or doesn’t affect election results.)

A bit further below, I want to get to what I think really bothers the polisci academics, but first let me make some observations about where I see political journalism today.

Political journalism is rapidly moving toward a niche national market. This is due to local and national media economic trends that I don’t need to get bogged down with here, but the result should be obvious to anyone who reflects upon it. Local political coverage is in the shitter, and ain’t coming back. General-interest political coverage is – what, are you kidding? There is no general interest in politics. 

The only market for political journalism is the niche audiences that, over a national scope (and thanks to national economies of scale), can be raked together into a profitable audience – not much different from a Food Network or Sci-Fi Channel. I don’t know how the number of people in this country who actually care what Tim Pawlenty has to say about the debt ceiling, compares with the number who care about Dr. Who, but I’m pretty sure that in both cases you need to fish every single one of them up in your net to financially justify airing either one.

I would further argue that there are basically three ways to appeal to sufficiently substantial segments of this political audience – each of which is now, like the food and sci-fi audience, represented by one national cable network. This is a bit of an overgeneralization, but there are A) liberals who want to feel smarter than conservatives; B) conservatives who want to feel morally superior to liberals; and C) people who want to feel more in-the-loop and in-the-know than everybody else. Those three niche audiences are, of course, targeted by the programming on MSNBC, FOX News, and CNN respectively – but also by Daily Kos, Washington Monthly, the New Yorker, and the American Prospect; by, National Review, and talk-radio syndicators; and by the Washington Post, Politico, National Journal, Morning Joe, and the major-network Sunday morning shows.

These three categories of national niche-seeking media probably account for 90% of what Marx, Nyhan, and Sides see and consider when they think of political journalism. And, about 90% of it is pure jackassery. So, it’s easy to see why it bothers them.

But what they see as flaws to be improved are in fact design features.

Nyhan and Sides posit optimistically that political journalists may come to see that by incorporating academic findings, they can add distinguishing value to their work and thus do better in the marketplace. I’m not sure what media marketplace they’re watching, which rewards those journalists or pundits who are more accurate in their descriptions or predictions of events. I must not get that publication, or network, or web site; I’ll be sure to keep looking.

In fact, let me sadly burst a bubble under Marx, Nyhan, and Sides. They point eagerly to the mass-media infiltration of 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." No offense, but I would suggest that those folks, and others Marx mentions, like the terrific 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 marketplace dynamics I mentioned above. I argued above that one of the three available political-media niches is “liberals who want to feel smarter than conservatives.” You know what gives people that feeling? Nerds.

No offense. But you can’t think it’s a coincidence or accident that MSNBC prime-time programming is (with the obvious exception of populist-appeal Ed Schultz) a parade of nerds -- people with an aura of academic or intellectual bona fides saying, in clever words and frequent citations, that progressives are right.

(You’ll also notice that when the answers progressives want to hear are spectacularly wrong –for example when all those MSNBC shows are insisting that Democrats will win politically by standing firm on the latest liberal battleground issue -- they usually leave out Klein and turn to activists like Jane Hamsher and Rep. Anthony Weiner.)

That’s nothing against Klein or Chait or the rest of them; I don’t think they’re doing it as shtick. But I would argue that they have survived and prospered to the extent that they have because of a market demand, in that particular area of political journalism, for a few journos who sound like they pay close attention to academic research.

You don’t get those kinds of nerds on FOX News, and others aiming for that niche, because they have an audience that tends, for various reasons, to respond well to hearing their own opinions echoed and validated by "ordinary" people -- uneducated hosts like Hannity and Beck (or bloggers like Erick Erickson and the like); 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.

Of course, both of those sets of audiences really just want primarily to hear the other side being bashed as evil, fat, morons. (For some reason, fat seems to be important.) Whereas CNN, and others targeting the “in the loop” seekers, go instead for the endless line of insider Beltway pundits, journalists, politicos, and consultants – who don’t need to actually be correct about anything; they just need to give the perception that they are privy to something.

A few other things quickly. First, as everything gets pushed more and more into this national niche, the more the whole enterprise of political journalism becomes what I call “waiting for the next baby to fall down a well.” The niches really only work when there’s a baby down a well – that is, an ongoing story arc that the entire niche audience all wants to watch continually. When there is none, you’ve got to report on an awful lot of little crap to fill the space you’ve carved out, whether it’s your network’s four daily back-to-back hours of political talk shows, or your web site’s thrice-daily email update blasts, or your three-hour call-in radio show, or your hit-needy blog and Twitter feed. So there’s a lot of that, while waiting for the next baby to fall down a well – like when Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators fled, that turned out to be a pretty good baby down a well, certainly for the liberal media at the least. The 2010 midterm elections, at the who-will-control-Congress level, were a baby down the well; the health care bill was sporadically. But ultimately you need Natalee Holloway or Tot Mom, which in political media is the Presidential election cycle. (By the way, if you want to understand how today’s most prominent political media works, and where academia fits into it, I highly advise watching the Nancy Grace show, and imagining yourself as the criminal-justice academics I mentioned earlier.)

Also, please remember that the vast majority of actual political journalism is just journalists going out trying to find something reasonably interesting that their readers (or listeners or viewers) didn’t know or think of yesterday – or as I call it, “filling the area between ads with something marginally preferable to blank space.” This is the actual “point” of most journalism, and you might be surprised how difficult it is to do on a regular basis, on deadline, and without generating too many costly lawsuits for your company. (And by the way, if you’re any good at it you’ll quickly move to a a more lucrative position in the niche national markets or, more likely, out of journalism entirely.) Sometimes the cumulative impression of those reports may suggest something untrue. For example, those criminal-justice researchers from earlier were berating those crime reporters for creating, through the accumulation of their stories, false impressions about whether certain kinds of crime are rising, or who most often commits them, and so forth – just as Marx, Nyhan, and Sides feel that political journalists give false notions about how much of an affect certain day-to-day campaign events have on elections. They’re right about the effects, but the criticism of the day-to-day journalism, or calls for changing it, are misplaced.

Also, I just want to suggest that from the journalist’s perspective, academics don’t know as much as they think they know.

But still and all, there is a basic truth behind the argument that political journalism would be improved by more understanding and incorporation of academic research; and I think Marx, Nyhan, and Sides are making solid inroads both in making the argument for that, and in starting to suggest appropriate paths toward improvement.

I’m just not sure, ultimately, that it’s important. Sure, it’s annoying if yet another New York Times Magazine cover story is based on fundamentally false premises. But hey, for the bulk of Times readers it’s probably marginally better than blank space. And the vast majority of people won't see it and don't care.

But there is something about politics and media that I do think is important – and which finally circles me around to the third essay from The Forum, by Shanto Iyengar.

Iyengar argues that in the longstanding battle between candidates and the media, candidates have gained an upper hand. This raises “the possibility of unmediated campaigns,” Iyengar writes.

I think Iyengar is not only correct, he’s way, way, understating the situation. I believe that over the past 30 years or so, strategists and other campaign professionals – and political professionals more broadly, in public office as well as on the hustings – have advanced by leaps and bounds in their mastery of marketing, public-relations, advertising, communications, and message control. Meanwhile, changing media patterns, like those I’ve been babbling about here, have made the media far less capable of discerning and countering those political professionals and their tactics.

This, I think, is a crucial area where political-science academics might be able to offer some serious analysis to help the political media. First of all, I think it’s important. What has the effect been, for instance, of the concerted effort to convince conservatives not to trust, or even expose themselves to, any media sources not clearly identified as conservative? (Did you know that the ’08 McCain general-election campaign had an entire team dedicated full-time to criticizing mainstream media sources, through blog commentary and other conservative media, to help pre-emptively ensure that any critical coverage, such as the New York Times feature on McCain’s ties to lobbyists, would have no effect on Republican base voters?) Or, how unusual is Mitt Romney’s hermetically-sealed candidacy-by-op-ed? And so on and so on.

Besides, that kind of area of study might actually get the attention of the notoriously navel-gazing political media. And I think there is, generally, a sense in the politicojournosphere that we’re all caught being pawns in these candidates’ games, that we’re pretty helpless to claw our way out of.

The problem I see is not that we journalists are failing to incorporate enough of the data about, say, the actual relationship between corporation contributions and campaign success. The problem is that in the broad realm of informing the democratic electorate, we journalists are being run over and left in a ditch. I don’t know if you academics have any help to offer, but we sure could use it.

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