Elections should be serious business and the media should be in the business of ensuring that voters are well-informed about the issues that separate candidate and parties. That’s the ideal, anyway. When the media took upon itself the role of the Fourth Estate, the institution that served as the check on government power and agency to inform the public about critical issues facing the states and nation, it took upon itself the responsibility to make sure that our elections were about something more than advertisements and spin. We’re right on the verge of the annual spate of editorials affirming this “sacred” role in fact, but unfortunately the pious intonations about the media’s role are not matched by serious reporting.
Instead, we’re most often given superficial coverage of spectacle and distractions. Robert McChesney, in his excellent book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America, describes the coverage that characterizes most elections in the United States today:
Media outlets obsess about misstatements and missteps— few of which ever move poll numbers— not simply on debate nights; they do so every night. Politico’s Dylan Byers wrote that “because of the pace established by Twitter and the Internet, the latest ‘gotcha’ moment snowballs faster than ever . For a reporter pressed to be ahead of the cycle, assuming conscientious-objector status would be suicide. Once one credible journalist takes the bait, everyone takes the bait.” The phenomenon is so common that Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer coined the term “dumbgeist” to refer to the plethora of “manufactured controversies, substance-free media obsessions” in campaign coverage.
We’re certainly seeing that in Montana the past few days, with the media competing with itself to run more trivial and pointless stories about the New York Times story about Senator Walsh’s alleged plagiarism at the Army War College. Again, let me be clear (especially for the literacy-challenged: John Walsh was wrong to plagiarize any portion of his academic work. And let me be clear on another point: the Montana media should cover the story. It’s certainly important to a political race. And a third point: not every member of the Montana press has treated this story like it’s the MOST IMPORTANT STORY in the history of journalism.
But there has been absolutely no sense of proportion in the coverage of this story.
Don’t agree? How about these classic pieces of Woodwardian journalism?
- Want to know how two random students at MSU felt about the story? NBC Montana has you covered.
- Want to know that two elected officials who were once teachers didn’t have a comment on the story? MTN News has you covered.
- Want to know what three veterans, devoid of context, think about the story? The Bozeman Daily Chronicle has you covered.
- Want to know if Governor Bullock read all of Senator Walsh’s college papers before selecting him? The AP has you covered.
- Want to read a rehash of the New York Times story with innuendo from totally unbiased, Koch-funded journalists? The Watchdog Wire has you covered.
- Want to know what John Bohlinger, a man who shifted his entire political point of view to try to win an election thinks? The Lee State Bureau has you covered.
Is any voter possibly better informed about the US Senate race because they’ve read or watched one of these stories? Are there any other issues the intrepid reporters in the Montana media could have covered instead, stories that would help Montana voters better understand the choice they’ll face in November?
I think so.
Now, if you want to know how Steve Daines and John Walsh will vote on critical issues facing Montana, you probably won’t be covered, because those stories can’t be reduced to 30 second or 600 word pieces—and definitely don’t have great art.
As a Democrat, and a blogger, and a concerned citizen who doesn’t want to see Steve Daines anywhere near the Senate, I’m reduced to hoping that someone will uncover a scandal in his past, because I know with near-certainty that his terrible votes on veterans’ issues, his role in outsourcing American jobs to China, and his commitment to punishing the poorest Montanans will never receive the kind of “in-depth” coverage a scandal would. Hell, the media isn’t even likely to meaningfully discuss the argument (a critical policy question facing the nation) advanced by John Walsh in his recently uncovered paper.
As an admitted partisan, I’m left to hope that Representative Daines will sue a fire department for saving his property or that he’ll take a boat ride with a drunken state senator, because too many of the professional journalists in this state seem think their job is to cover superficial spectacle stories with even more alacrity than bloggers do.
And win or lose, Walsh or Daines, that’s a damn shame.