Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Election Rituals

Election coverage has a number of silly rituals and tropes. NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen at PressThink has a great piece up called "A Viewer’s Guide to Iowa Caucus Coverage" (1/3/12). Some of it pertains exclusively to the Iowa Caucus completed two weeks ago, but much of it applies to election coverage in general. His key point is:

The Iowa Caucuses are presented as a news event, a mini-election with an informational outcome, a winner. But what they really are is a ritual, the gathering of a tribe, which affirms itself and its place in our political system by staging this thing every four years.

This is spot-on. The specific reason for this is that “the Iowa caucuses will award no delegates to any candidate.” More generally, while the Iowa Caucus does hold some real consequences (candidates with very low numbers dropping out), there's no doubt that its importance is massively and artificially inflated. It should not hold the prominence it does. The same goes (to a lesser degree) for the New Hampshire Primary. Their predictive value regarding the eventual nominee is quite poor, and neither state is populous or demographically representative of the nation as a whole. (I explored much of this in "That Fragrant Horse Coverage" in 2008, a year that saw some high marks – or low marks – in idiocy in election coverage.)

Rosen features some sharp observations from Joan Didion and the late James W. Carey. Here's Didion:

When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life. “I didn’t realize you were a political junkie,” Marty Kaplan, the former Washington Post reporter and Mondale speechwriter who is now married to Susan Estrich, the manager of the Dukakis campaign, said when I mentioned that I planned to write about the campaign; the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialists but also legible only to its own specialists, is why, finally, an American presidential campaign raises questions that go so vertiginously to the heart of the structure.

Rosen adds:

Then she goes in for the kill. “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” Yes! That is something else I want you to watch for tonight. That remoteness.

Sadly, remoteness seems to be a defining feature of mainstream election coverage. Here's Carney:

What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of contending forces in the world. Moreover, as readers make their way through the paper, they engage in a continual shift of roles or of dramatic focus. A story on the monetary crisis salutes them as American patriots fighting those ancient enemies Germany and Japan; a story on the meeting of the women’s political caucus casts them into the liberation movement as supporter or opponent; a tale of violence on the campus evokes their class antagonisms and resentments. The model here is not that of information acquisition, though such acquisition occurs, but of dramatic action in which the reader joins a world of contending forces as an observer at a play.

Rosen comments:

Carey‘s point in “A Cultural Approach to Communication” is not that the transmission view is “wrong,” but that it cannot illuminate much of what is happening when we encounter the news. A feature on the candidate’s media adviser invites us behind the scenes, where appearances are contrived for an unwitting audience from whom we are now separated by our superior knowledge of the mechanics of manipulation. A television report puts us inside the cockpit of a fighter jet, zeroing in on an enemy target with high-tech precision. We might call this the “positioning effect.” It occurs regardless of whether the journalist-as-author takes a position or produces a neutral, “objective” account. Something else I want you to watch for tonight. How are we–the users, the viewers–being positioned by the reporting and commentary we are given?

I've long felt that, unfortunately, imbibing a great deal of mainstream political coverage can easily leave someone less informed than before, but with a false sense of confidence that the opposite is the case. As studies have shown, this is certainly true for Fox News viewers, but if we're discussing political understanding and context, I would contend the problem is much more widespread. In terms of knowing that specific events have taken place, avid news consumers will more informed and conversant than average Americans, but in terms of political insight, they can wind up worse than before. The conventional Beltway wisdom on any given subject reflects the social norms and consensus of the chattering class, but it is rarely actually wise. The political analysis in mainstream outlets is often appalling shallow and vapid if not factually incorrect. Smart and skeptical news consumers can sift through the dross in coverage, of course, but less grounded viewers can be misled – especially when poor political conversation is the norm. For instance, consider that the dreadful Mark Halperin, who is almost unfailingly wrong and chronically shallow, but is presented to viewers as a political sage. Halperin "won" #1 on Salon's Hack 30 in 2011, a well-deserved dishonor (he was #2 in 2010), but the other 29 are similarly presented as Very Serious People… and there are many more who didn't make the list. (These dynamics are explored in more depth in "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit.")

As Bob Somerby has often opined, many prominent political reporters write novels rather than journalism, selling narratives that are almost always misleading and superficial, and often outright false. As Geoffrey Nunberg has observed, the selection of political pundits on talk shows resembles sitcom casting, with "types" of political observers being selected. (I have more on this in reference to Ann Coulter in this 2006 post, and Nunberg's insight deserves more discussion in a future post on political theater. "Silent Questions" also covers some of this material, more tangentially.)

This year, Mitt Romney was announced the winner of the Iowa Caucus (by a mere eight votes over Rick Santorum, although the results have been questioned, and now it appears Santorum won). Romney also won in New Hampshire, and is predicted by most analysts and odds-makers to be the eventual Republican nominee. The primary season is less suspenseful because of this, although there have been some interesting elements. Romney is absolutely despised by most voters in the conservative base (they didn't like McCain, either, but they hate Romney more vociferously). Watching those dynamics play out, and the rise and fall of a series of Not-Romney candidates, has been amusing. Meanwhile, the Super PAC money has made things more tumultuous. Such groups can widen the lead for the frontrunner (a Romney Super PAC slammed Newt Gingrich relentlessly and successfully), but a single rich donor can give a flailing candidate new life (A Nevada billionaire gave a Gingrich group five million dollars). With Romney pulling ahead, most of the other candidates have eagerly broken Reagan's "11th commandment" (thou shalt not talk ill of a Republican) in going after Romney as too liberal, too moderate, and even too conservative and heartless. This, too, has been pretty amusing, especially given the rank hypocrisy and bad faith of most of these attacks. Most importantly, with only a few exceptions, the actual policies the Republican candidates have been presenting have been absolutely horrible (Lower taxes on the poor rich!). The candidates, just like many of the reporters covering them, would prefer to keep everything on the level of personalities and gossip versus serious policy analysis and discussion of the likely consequences of their proposals (further devastating the middle class and the poor to give more to the most rich and privileged, mostly). None of this requires arcane knowledge to divine, either. Rosen presents some election rituals and other things he "want[s] you to watch for tonight" in election coverage, and news junkies and conscientious citizens should always keep an eye out for the bullshit: the old, recycled and revered, the re-vamped and re-branded, and the new.


zencomix said...

"When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals..."

As an Iowan, let me tell you how undemocratic the Iowa Caucus is, "a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals." The caucus happens on a weeknight, starting typically at 7:00 pm. There is a window of about half an hour to get in, after which the doors are closed. If you work nights, you can not participate unless you take time off from work. There are no "absentee ballots" or "early voting" in the caucus, so if you happen to be out of town that day, sorry, no caucus for you. If you are on your way to the caucus, and you are delayed at a railroad crossing by a train hauling high fructose corn syrup, and you get there just a little bit late, sorry, no caucus for you!

This is no way to conduct an election

Batocchio said...

Good piece, zencomix! I believe I read it back in the day. My 2008 piece had much more on Iowa, and linked a Steve Benen piece on the silliness of the Iowa Causcus. I think first-hand accounts like yours are especially valuable. Back in 2008, some Iowan was defending the process, but every single positive thing he could point to could be achieved through other (and generally better) means.