Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The media need a story...dammit

Back in mid-September when it looked like President Obama had a commanding lead in the polls, his campaign kept trying to tell us that this was a close race. I know, I didn't believe them either. I had mistaken what amounted to a poll-driven bounce following the conventions for a permanent trajectory in the race. And I thought the Obama campaign was simply calling the race close in order to combat any complacency people might feel if they thought it was going to be a rout. I was wrong.

And so perhaps it behooves us to listen to what the Obama campaign is saying about the race right now.
Obama aides insist they are either tied or winning in all the battlegrounds — and that Romney has succeeded in locking up nothing. And they say the early vote continues to bode well for an Obama victory.

“Anybody who thinks those states are in the bag is half in the bag themselves,” top Obama adviser David Axelrod said of North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida. “We have added millions to TV spending in each of these states. We are doubling down. We are not pulling back at all. We believe that Florida is an incredibly competitive state. North Carolina is a competitive state. Virginia is a competitive state. These are states Republicans were expecting to have wrapped up and they’re battling to hold on to them.”
Much of this is in response to the lie the Romney campaign is trying to spin that they have momentum and are therefore winning. The truth is, the media gave them that opening by their irrational reporting following the first debate in Denver.

Yesterday Alex MacGillis joined Kevin Drum in being one of the few pundits to take on the lie of that particular narrative. MacGillis rightly points out that up until the first debate, the media was longing for a more compelling story about the election. And how on October 3rd - they got it.
But then: our mile-high salvation! Denver, O Denver. As the dynamic of the first debate began to register just a few minutes in—the crisp and hopped-up Romney against the wordy and listless president—we sang our relief across the Twitterverse. The true partisans among us, the Maddows and Sullivans, rent their garments, but most of us were barely able to suppress our glee: we had ourselves a story. Never mind that the debate had produced no great knockdowns, or that, as some noted in the days following, Obama had actually made a decent substantive case in some areas, if not others. No, we had our story...

And lo, in the days that followed, the power of our story bore out across the land. Romney surged in the polls, in a post-debate bounce unlike any ever recorded. Never mind that closer inspection suggested that his rise had begun just before the debate, as Obama’s prior bounce abated. As we like to say in private company, this story was too good to check.
Those who suggest that the media has either a liberal or conservative bias miss the whole point. Their bias is towards a compelling story that attracts eyeballs and clicks and the Denver debate-as-turning-point was ready made for those purposes. After all, how boring would it be to listen to folks like Nate Silver and David Plouffe when they're basically saying that the state of the race is still stable? What kind of eyeballs actually pay attention to that kind of thing?  ;-)


  1. This is both well-observed and totally depressing. Maybe I should take heart that traditional media (television is now are declining in our country, with more people relying on other sources, particularly internet, for news. The whole economic complex of our news media is poisonous to our process.

    On the other hand, we depend largely on corporate media for day to day reportage, and this bleeds into the blogosphere. Al Giordano's model of journalism--not his alone--would be much healthier than the corporate model, and it's growing, I believe. There's even something along those lines, a member sponsored news operation, in my home, San Diego, the most retrograde, if climatically brilliant, coastal city in my fair state. Unfortunately, their reportage, while better than the local paper, isn't going to challenge potential donors' already-held ideas in this largely Republican town. Still, a potential way forward. Professional reporters serve a function.

    Good for MacGillis, though. I feel about the news media like I do Congress. Every now and again I read or hear an interview with someone actually talking seriously, and I feel like we have a lot of great people in the media/Congress. It's the systemic norms that kill us, that and a few genuinely sick individuals.

  2. I have respect for reporters who still do the hard work of investigation and analysis. But the lazy hive-mind punditry that passes for most discourse on cable news is just pathetic.

  3. Thanks for the last comment. Few things frustrate me more than liberals who automatically assume that negative reporting about Democrats is ipso-facto proof of conservative media bias. Yes, I think there is such a bias. But it is, as you suggest, negligible compared to the "a close race is a more interesting story" bias.

    These journalists have been following this campaign for nearly two years. The last thing they want is for the conclusion to be foregone. So it was inevitable that they would use any opportunity they could to talk it up as a close race.

    The race is closer than it was a month ago. But the fundamentals favor Obama as much now as they did than and they did favor him them.

  4. There were a bunch of "stories" they should have been telling. They could just do their job. Bill Clinton shouldn't be secretary of explaining stuff. The media should be doing that. If I wanted a story I'd watch a damn soap opera. We need the media to be serious. They could explain things like what the hell are credit default swaps and why are they important. They could've explained the death panel thing republicans keep harping on. If things are too difficult Dr Krugman's pretty good at making economic issues easier to understand. Give him a show to accommodate his schedule. Politics isn't exciting or sexy all the time. Governing is pretty damn boring. So they should be able to explain things like oil subsidies and the NRA's grip on DC. That's too much like work. It's much easier to bullshit and play games for drama.

    GOP obstruction is a decent story. Then they'd have to explain why they keep booking clowns like Gingrich and Carville's wife.