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John Edwards and Disappointing Electoral Coverage


It goes without saying that the Democratic frontrunners for the 2008 Presidential election are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton… Now that Edwards, Kucinich, Richardson, and Dodd are out, it goes without saying.

But what about before?

A long time ago, right after the 2000 election, I was in my university’s “American Government” class, and we were discussing elections. Specifically, we were discussing the subject of the media and elections – does the media influence elections, and does it have bias?

We read research which led to three relatively unsurprising conclusions:

  1. People in the media tend to have bias towards centrist or liberal candidates.
  2. Media (new reports, articles, etc) tends to be neutral, but more time/space was often given to conservative viewpoints.
  3. Most Importantly: Media “frames” political discussion and “sets the agenda”for discussion.

Drilling into that last one… If the media says, for example, that George W. Bush is a bad debater or John Kerry is a dry speaker, actions will be played in the media through those lenses. For example, though Bush is a very good debater, he was painted as a bad debater. As a result, his debates with Gore were considered successes – even though on balance, he lost.

Looking to the present, we have debates in which candidates spend a good deal of their time “taking umbrage” at something which they don’t like. The story, and the accompanying soundbites, becomes about their response to this offense rather than, say, their policy positions.

Which leads to the Democrats. Hillary was the frontrunner, to start. Why? Because the media annointed her as such. There is no such thing as a frontrunner before a race. And people were excited about the novelty of Obama. Which people? The media, which watched his every “revolutionary” move, the way they fell in love with McCain in 2000 and watched his every “independent” move. This left every other Democratic candidate with an uphill battle…. For face time.

That the media frames the conversation isn’t a bad thing in a vacuum. It is the fact that the modern media is a profit-center, where coverage of the horserace is far more important than coverage of the content. The modern television media hires communications people, people with good faces. An shrinking number of people we watch on the news are actually journalists. Expertise is farmed out to “pundits”, who are then asked questions about the battle rather than about the content. These news-reporters then focus on the news about the news – “how he responded to allegations”, “how the campaign spun the loss” – rather than the content of the election.

Edwards ran a campaign that, for all its PR difficulties, was content-driven. It was about economic equality, health care for all, and greener lifestyles. Edwards freely admitted, “I was wrong about Iraq,” and would try to pull the troops out as soon as possible.

I think I’m not wrong when I say Americans want that sort of change. On the flip side, how interesting is it that the three people with the most radical plans in the Democratic party were three white men – Edwards, Kucinich, and Gravel? And how interesting is it that the white woman and the black man are seen as more viable?

I think this speaks to the fear of the media to talk about issues and anoint favorites. It also speaks to their willingness to discuss apparent and inherent differences rather than differences that matter – policy.

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Filed under: Culture, Philosophy, Politics, , ,

One Response

  1. Ben Keeler says:

    Im no Edwards fan, but he had no chance running in 2004 against the two big names he was up against.

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