And there Sits the Fourth Estate…

One individual who I’ve quoted before on this blog and will certainly quote again is Jay Rosen, primarily because he is not only an astute observer of journalism’s transformation in the age of the web, but also a spot-on critic of the phony sensationalism that passes for journalism, especially in the mainstream. The day after a series of major primaries for the upcoming 2010 midterm elections, Rosen’s critiques are only further reaffirmed in light of much of the mainstream coverage. The general tone of coverage and analysis of the primaries speaks to everything that is wrong with journalism and the media today.

Rather than in-depth analysis of the policies of particular candidates or the reasons behind voting patterns, most coverage has tended toward needless “poll-watching” and predictions of who will win and why. Said predictions are peppered with meaningless buzzwords like “independents” or “Reagan Democrats” and what candidates must do to win over these voters and what constituencies they must pander to in order to take home the victory. Keen and careful analysis is devoted to Barack Obama’s bowling skills or Hilary’s laugh or what suburb in Pennsylvania  they have to win.

This type of horseshit is epitomized by John King and that fucking magical screen, which plots out several different possible voting scenarios in order to discern the eventual outcome of the vote. Personally, I think waiting until all votes are in is a much more efficient way of doing this, but of course I don’t have a fucking magic screen so what do I know? Furthermore, it’s hard to believe that anyone truly gives a bloody rat’s ass as to who might win and how they can win.

It seems that the primary driver of this vapid type of coverage is any given media outlet’s desire to craft a compelling narrative to suck viewers in, both before and after anything newsworthy actually happens. Rosen, in a piece you can read here, notes how this “horse-race politics” displayed itself during the 2008 Presidential election:

…the ability to handicap the race is a pretty bogus skill set. Who cares if you are good at anticipating events that will unroll in clear fashion without you? Why do we need people who know how this is going to play out in South Carolina when we can just wait for the voters to play it out themselves?

Among the “bogus narratives” the campaign press has developed so far, the Politico editors chose three to illustrate their humiliation. John McCain’s “collapse” in the summer of 2007, which meant we could write him off; Mike Huckabee’s win in Iowa, where the candidate without an organization took a state where electoral success, we were assured, was all about organization; and Obama’s “change the tone in politics” campaign which, according to the Gang, was not going to be in tune with the voters’ rawer, more partisan feelings in ’08. All three were a bust, suggesting political journalists have no special insight into: How is this going to play out? What they have are cheap, portable routines in which you ask that kind of question, and try to get ahead of the race. This, too, is what I mean by mindlessness.

The narrative crafted in the lead-up to and coverage of last night’s primaries was “anger at incumbents” or “the Washington establishment.”  And of course the twats at Fox Nation couldn’t help but ponder whether or not this was all a referendum on President Obama himself. Of course, there is no polling or research that I know of that inquires into whether or not voters cast their lot for a particular candidate as a rebuke or approval of the President. For example, John Avlon gets in on the anti-incumbent bandwagon, stating

If you’re an incumbent, be afraid…be very afraid.

That’s the message that voters in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Arkansas were sending to Washington on Tuesday’s primary night.

The New York Times also gets a piece of the action, boldly asserting that

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who left the Republican Party a year ago in hopes of salvaging a 30-year career, was rejected on Tuesday by Democratic primary voters, with Representative Joe Sestak winning the party’s nomination on an anti-incumbent wave that is defining the midterm elections.

While the notion of a citizen uprising against the establishment sounds great and sells, the only problem is that it simply isn’t necessarily true. In last night’s results, only one actual incumbent lost, that being Arlen Specter. In the Republican primary in Kentucky, neither candidate was even an incumbent, but Trey Grayson was dubbed the “establishment candidate” due to his endorsement from Mitch McConnell. Why this necessarily makes him part of the establishment – his opponent’s father is a very famous Republican congressman – is unclear, but fuck it it’s a great story.

Even if it were the case that the voters were sending a big Fuck You to the leaders of the party in Washington in the Kentucky case, one still has to account for the Florida race, in which Marco Rubio has all but secured the Republican nomination, having received endorsements from Newt Gingrich, Eric Cantor, and Dick Cheney. Certainly, if one were forced to define the Republican “establishment,” it would probably have to include those particular individuals.

So while only one incumbent technically lost, apparently, according to ABC News,

Any doubt about just how toxic the political environment is for congressional incumbents and candidates hand-picked by national Republican and Democratic leaders disappeared late Tuesday…

Of course, this is not to mention that two incumbent Congressman in Oregon won their primaries or that the Dems held John Murtha’s seat or that there are still almost thirty fucking Senate primaries to go! This notion of a revolt against incumbents therefore rests on rather shaky grounds and lacks any solid evidence, especially when only one incumbent has bitten the dust thus far and it’s not entirely clear who “the establishment” is. Thus, there seems to be some dissonance between reality and the narrative being sold this election cycle, but any other type of reporting requires nuance and critical thinking, and that might damage Sean Hannity’s already feeble emotional state.

Even in the case of Arlen Specter, who had Obama’s support, I could speculate as wildly as the media and assert that by voting for a candidate who ran to the left of Specter, voters were looking to reaffirm their support for Obama’s initial platform in 2008 which they feel he has abandoned. Perhaps then, the results were a call to action for Obama. Of course, I have no way of knowing this, and nothing is ever really that simple, but fuck it it’s a great line to sell.

The real problem with this type of coverage, however, and this is where Rosen’s critique is especially crucial, is that journalists are not doing their damn job when they partake is this asinine process. The title of this post is a paraphrase of a portion of Edmund Burke’s description of the press as recounted by Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle recounts,

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.

The Fourth Estate was of course a reference to the press, no doubt one of our most vital institutions. These are the people charged with disseminating crucial information and knowledge to the public so that they might make informed choices where their participation in the political process is concerned. The type of “horse-race politics” and bogus narratives described above simply brings no information or knowledge of any value to its consumers and does nothing to separate journalists from a vomit-fest like American Idol. Rosen observes,

Who’s-gonna-win is portable, reusable from cycle to cycle, and easily learned by newcomers to the press pack. Journalists believe it brings readers to the page and eyeballs to the screen. It “works” regardless of who the candidates are, or where the nation is in historical time. No expertise is actually needed to operate it. In that sense, it is economical. (And when everyone gets the winner wrong the “surprise” becomes a good story for a few days.) Who’s going to win – and what’s their strategy – plays well on television, because it generates an endless series of puzzles toward which journalists can gesture as they display their savviness, which is the unofficial religion of the mainstream press.

The remedy, which only requires a bit of common sense, entails interrogating key policy issues and informing viewers of the types of elected officials candidates might make. Rosen, once again in light of the 2008 Presidential election, concludes,

Journalists ought to be bringing new knowledge into the system, as Charlie Savage and the Boston Globe did in December. They gave the presidential candidates a detailed questionnaire on the limits of executive branch power and nine candidates responded. This is a major issue that any candidate for president should have to address, given the massive build-up of presidential power engineered by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. We desperately need to know what the contenders for the presidency intend to do – continue the build-up or roll it back? – but we won’t know unless the issue is injected into the campaign.

The type of coverage we’ve been seeing thus far, which will likely continue into November, is simply lazy and insulting. Even if a truly anti-incumbent trend were to emerge, understanding it would require a close examination of voting behaviour and the reasons which underpin it rather than a myriad of asshats or “Political Consultants” and “Party Strategists” wildly speculating about who will win and what that means, especially when what it means is usually an affirmation of their own party’s platform. Ideally, this would be coupled with Rosen’s aforementioned exploration of real issues.

Unfortunately, I don’t have much reason to hope that this will ever happen. At least not until we get mad, mad as hell. Before anything you’ve got to get mad!

Please do yourself a favour and read Rosen’s piece The Beast Without a Brain, which I’ve quoted throughout this piece, in its entirety.

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  1. Generic Media Narratives Wrong Again (June 8th Primary Results) « We are Living in a Society
  2. The Message is the Message « We are Living in a Society

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