Friday, September 12, 2008

On Press Coverage, and "Tough Questions"

Ok, ok... So I've been playing a whole lot of the computer game Spore lately, and haven't been spending much time thinking about what my next blog post should be--AKA "Feeding the Beast".

(Of course, the phrase "Feeding the Beast" is reminding me of Spore, too. Everything seems to, these days....)

And I've completely blown my one-post-per day benchmark. Ah, well. So I guess I might as well blow another self-imposed rule of mine, the one about avoiding political topics.


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Since Sarah Palin came on the scene two weeks ago, she's rather dominated the political news coverage, in a way that few candidates do. In fact, the last candidate to get this much coverage, to become this kind of a media phenomenon, was Barack Obama himself. The trouble for him is that he was the phenomenon about eight months ago; now Palin has become the new shiny thing that has attracted everyone's attention. Eight months from now, even if the McCain/Palin ticket wins, the press will find something or someone else to cover, and it will be on with the next fad...

Now, to be fair, there are some good reasons that Palin has grabbed everyone's attention. She has the very real potential to upend this race, and it looks like this may in fact be happening. And I'll probably blog about her more in the future.

But this post isn't actually about her. I have an observation to make regarding the press.


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Since Tonya and I don't have a TV in our house, we tend to miss a lot of the news as it happens, and then we read about it after the fact. Just from a time management standpoint, it's a whole lot faster to read a speech, than it is to listen to it. If there's some news video we want to see, we can go look it up online; but if we're not particularly interested in something, we never see it.

Now, the big political news over the past day or so has been the interviews that Mrs. Palin did with Charlie Gibson of ABC News. Tonya and I haven't been particularly interested in the interviews themselves, so we haven't seen them.

But what has caught my attention is some of the reaction to these interviews. Being something of a socially conservative libertarian type myself, I tend to read a lot on sites like Townhall, Redstate, the Instapundit, National Review, Hot Air, and so forth. And the consensus on these sites is that Charlie Gibson is asking some very tough questions and pressing for answers--not always fairly, as when he misquoted some statements of hers about the Will of God and demanded that she defend them. And the consensus is that she's handling these questions reasonably well. Not perfectly; she's had better performances before; but she's doing adequately.

Here's what's caught my attention: So many of the commenters at these various sites are decrying the media bias, and saying things like: How come they never ask Obama hard questions like these? and If she was a man, they'd never ask her stuff like this, and Oh, that question was so off base that it's absolutely clear they're in the tank for her opponents, and So when are they going to ask Obama about X, Y and Z? and so forth.

There's an underlying assumption here that I'd like to pull out into the daylight and kick around for a while, to see what y'all think. The thought process of these commenters goes something like this:
  1. The press prefers candidate X over candidate Y.
  2. Therefore, the press will give much harder questions to candidate Y than X...
  3. ...In the hopes that candidate Y will stumble...
  4. ...Making X look more attractive to the electorate than Y...
  5. ...Thus influencing the vote in the direction that the press wants.
My thought, which I've been mulling around for some time now, is: what if we've all got step 4. above totally backwards?

Suppose for the moment that these commenters are right--that there is a strong leftwing bias in the press, and that this manifests itself as hostile questioning of non-leftist candidates, and friendly questioning of leftist ones. Is it not possible that this disparity actually works to the benefit of the non-leftist candidates? That is, the hostile questioning actually makes the intended target electorally stronger?

After all, consider:
  1. If a candidate handles a hostile question well--keeps his or her cool, gives a detailed and weighty answer--that's impressive to most fair-minded observers. Softballs don't impress anybody. A hostile press gives more opportunity for a good candidate to shine, than a docile press does.
  2. A candidate that routinely gets hostile questions will, over time, become good at answering them. A hostile press can actually make a candidate stronger on the stump, or in debate, than he or she would otherwise have been.
  3. Furthermore, a hostile press can wind up causing the electorate to sympathize with the candidate being targeted. Americans have always loved the underdog and hated bullies; when a candidate holds up to tough questions delivered by sneering reporters, we're likely to cheer them on.
  4. Suppose a voter agrees with a candidate on Issue X. Suppose a reporter gives the candidate a really tough, even unfair, grilling on Issue X, implying that anyone that agrees with Issue X is stupid. What does that do to the voter? It helps him realize that he agrees with the candidate, and suggests to him that he might be better served by tuning in to a different channel for his election coverage.
I'm reminded of something along these lines from the Democratic primaries earlier this year. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton held something like two dozen debates during the primaries. When Obama was riding high in the wake of Super Tuesday and the other February contests, numerous Hillary supporters started calling foul about the questions being posed in the debates--it seemed to them that Clinton was getting the tough questions, and Obama was getting the softballs. And it wasn't just the Hillary supporters who noticed this: the guys at Saturday Night Live noticed it too, and created an opening segment for one of their programs that was an absolutely glorious debate parody. If you're interested, you can see it here.

So what happened? Well, that skit got seen by millions of people. Hillary herself started referring to it in later debate performances and stump speeches. And, perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, that was about the time that her election performance started to improve; after a disastrous February, she won most contests after that, and nearly caught up to Obama by the end of the primary season.

I suspect that some combination of my four points above happened: the fact that she was widely percieved as having harder questions earned points for her in people's minds. It earned her sympathy, and gave her opportunity to show off her command of the issues and her ability to perform under fire.


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And it's important to note who's actually been winning the presidential elections lately.

Now, my readers are free to disagree with me on this point if they want--after all, gauging Press Bias is a highly subjective exercise, and I tend to be on the right-hand side of the political center, so I will tend to see the press as left-leaning. Your mileage may vary.

Nevertheless, let's look at all the elections over the last forty years or so and see who's been winning them, and who the press favored.

1968--the press hated Nixon. I don't think there was a time that they ever didn't hate Nixon, even when he was Ike's Vice President. (And back then, the press supported Adlai Stevenson.) Nixon won anyway.

1972--ditto, especially because Nixon's "secret plan" to get us out of Vietnam ultimately involved escalating our efforts until we won. Nixon won anyway. (Incidentally, Wikipedia says that Nixon never actually used the term "secret plan" himself; that phrasing was actually coined by a reporter...)

1976--Carter v. Ford. These were the post-Watergate years, and the press hated anything Republican. Carter won the election--barely. The undecideds mostly broke for Ford, nearly bringing him to popular-vote parity with Carter on election day, after having trailed badly during the summer.

1980--Carter v. Reagan. At this point in time, Reagan was seen in the press as a warmonger and social neanderthal. He was also dismissed as a shallow B-Movie actor and intellectual lightweight. He won anyway.

1984--Reagan was still viewed by the press as a warmonger, social neanderthal, and shallow B-Movie actor. And Mondale had picked a woman for his running mate, which made it the first time a woman had run on a major party's presidential ticket. The press were all over them. Mondale then went on to lose 49 states. (Incidentally, this was the first election that I really remember personally; I was vaguely aware of the 1980 election, but I was only nine at the time.)

1988--Bush v. Dukakis. I was not quite old enough to vote, but some guys in my senior class were, and there was a lot of interest in this election. I remember the press's absolute loathing of Bush after the Willie Horton ad, which didn't run in our neck of the woods and I never got to see. Bush was seen as the third term of Reagan, and won a strong victory (after having trailed in the summer).

1992--The press was tired of the Bush/Reagan years, and was constantly pushing the "we need change" line, as well as pushing the idea that the congressional-presidential "gridlock" of those years was entirely the fault of the President. They also played up the "Man from Hope" theme quite a bit. Ultimately, Clinton won--but with only 42 percent of the popular vote, since Perot took a big chunk. It's not really known how the vote would have panned out had Perot not been on the ballots; but it's within the realm of plausibility that Bush would have captured enough to win.

1996--Times were good in the US. We were at peace, the economy was strong, and the press was happy. Dole never really had a chance.

2000--Dubya was alternately portrayed as a hick and as a pampered scion of an aristocratic family. Every little slip of the tongue--and to be fair, there were many--was jumped on to portray him as an idiot. Al Gore was viewed as the Candidate of the Environment, the one who would fight for the little guy, the intelligent one; Bush was seen as having Daddy issues. Ultimately Bush won the election in the Electoral College after a very messy count/re-count/re-re-count process in Florida.

2004--The press hated Bush. For one thing, many of them thought he'd stolen the 2000 election. For another, he had gotten us involved in Iraq. Kerry was held up as Bush's intellectual superior; Kerry's military service in Vietnam was repeatedly invoked and compared to Bush's time in the National Guard. And then there were the forged papers that CBS tried to use to smear Bush. Yes, the press were definitely in the tank for Kerry the last time around. Bush won anyway.

2008--I don't seriously think there are too many people in the mainstream press who want McCain to win. I suspect most of them think that Obama's presidency would be "historic", that it would be for them a welcome repudiation of the Bush years and The Time That America Is Made Right Again; McCain for them would be just another Dead White Guy in the presidency. (Ok, technically he's not dead yet, but they keep bringing up that age thing....)

So not counting the 2008 election, that's 10 elections since 1968. If my assessment of the media favorites above is correct, it means that the media favorite only won three of those ten contests, and lost seven of them. If they are trying to sway elections with hostile questioning, it doesn't appear to be working....


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So my advice for any political observer who happens to read this post (and any candidate! I can dream, can't I?) : don't complain if your candidate receives tough questions from a hostile press. In fact, pray that your candidate does receive tough questions--and pray that your candidate hits them out of the ballpark. You should see tough questioning as opportunities to shine; the more of these you get, the better you can show yourself to the electorate. The candidate who gets only softballs never has a chance to show his calm under fire, his command of the issues and of their details, and his depth of character. No candidate ever lost an election solely to tough questions, so long as he or she was able to give reasonably competent responses. Tough questions, and hostile press, only sink the candidacies of those who shouldn't have been candidates in the first place.

And regading Palin? From what I'm seeing, she's doing just fine.

1 comment:

Big Doofus said...

I've never really gotten on-board with the press bias idea that permeates the conservative crowd. Sure, there may be liberal leanings in the general press that reports the news nationally and in bigger metropolitan areas, but conservatives OWN talk radio and that same bit of the genre that spills over to television. How many liberal talk radio hosts can you name?

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

Time's up. Chances are that you didn't come up with too many.

Now, how many conservatives can you name in talk radio or the tv equivalent? MANY! How powerful do you think this is? It's powerful enough that the democrats tried to shut them up with a bill that didn't pass.

One guage (completely unscientific) that I've been using with the current election is the number of signs that I see. This includes bumper stickers, yard signs, buttons, etc. I can count on one hand the number of McCain or McCain/Palin signs I've seen (2!) and yet I see Obama signage everywhere. Indiana is expected to be a close race and we usually vote republican.

Palin was a breath of fresh air for the campaign. The clearest sign of media bias has to do with women and abortion. Any time that a woman rises in the ranks of the GOP, her authenticity is questioned over the abortion issue. It's just assumed that "real" women kill their babies.

This was a thought provoking post.