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Jul. 16 2010 - 1:00 pm | 312 views | 1 recommendation | 3 comments

If the Washington press corps tried to cover reality

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 25:  Republican vice-pres...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

It’s a cruel summer for Democrats, and the media are filled with analyses of what’s gone wrong with the Obama presidency.

The main problem with these pieces is that they soft-pedal the real, and really the only, reason that Obama’s approval rating is low (and it isn’t even that low – Pollster.com’s “poll of polls” puts it 46.1 percent, compared to 48.3 percent who disapprove). Generally speaking, the broad American public barely follows politics, especially in a non-presidential election year. For instance, I’d bet that most people have never heard of the “New Black Panthers.” Americans do, however, respond to objective economic conditions, and those are very bad right now. It’s a wonder Obama’s approval isn’t a lot lower.

The media still assume that when Obama gives a speech, or meets with some foreign leader, or that when the oil well gets capped, the public opinion needle moves. Maybe it does, for a short while, though such movements are hard to separate from noise. The fallacy is the assumption that enough speeches and salesmanship and short-term political victories and gaffes by opponents can move the needle of public opinion almost anywhere, and that political ninja skills can keep it there. That’s just not true, as Brendan Nyhan points out in a post critiquing a piece by Slate’s John Dickerson:

In reality, however, there’s no evidence that Obama has become any less effective as a salesman — as I’ve repeatedly pointed out over the years (e.g. here, here, here, and here), presidents can rarely generate significant shifts in public opinion in support of their domestic policy agenda. Obama’s failure to generate increased support for the stimulus and health care is not the least bit surprising, especially given the political environment in which he’s operating.

The larger problem with this analysis is that Dickerson is constructing a post hoc narrative about Obama’s poll numbers using the epistemology of journalism, which treats tactics as the dominant causal force in politics. Within that worldview, if Obama’s numbers used to be high and they are now low, the only logical conclusion is that “his ability to persuade and change minds is seriously damaged.” The idea that Obama’s numbers have declined across the board in large part due to the state of the economy is only briefly acknowledged (“or [the public] can’t hear [Obama] over the bad economic news”).

But if the president’s day-to-day statements, speeches and photo ops truly have virtually no electoral consequences, what are journalists supposed to cover? What would happen if the media based its assumptions for covering politics on the way politics actually worked?

For political media, it’s all about election results. The goal is to tell us what actions today will shape tomorrow’s elections and longer-term electoral coalitions, and ultimately what that means for people. If they really wanted to do that accurately, reporters would have to change their assumptions and upgrade their technical skills. Here are a few suggestions:

-Put political tactics in perspective. A news cycle full of Gibbs quips, Biden gaffes, gotcha questions, the outrage-of-the-day, anything Sarah Palin says or does, etc. tells us little. In general, political reporters should be more skeptical about the agency of presidential aides and political strategists in influencing public opinion and voting. I’m not saying ignore the tactical stuff – just assign it something less than the world-historical importance it now has. That will be tough, though, because most political reporters fancy themselves political strategists, and envy the real ones. But in fact, the slavish devotion to “savvy” and the conventional wisdom of the moment tends to circumscribe debates and limit political options. It’s all very meta, and one reason why the reason the system is broken.

-Understand public opinion and polling. Reporters should be able to explain how voters really respond to economic changes and political trends. Right now, most can’t, or won’t. Reference: fivethirtyeight.com.

-Focus on what the government actually does. If elections are determined mostly by economic conditions, political reporters should focus more on the levers of economic policy, examining what Obama, Congress and the Fed are, and could be, doing to boost economic growth and employment. This would, however, require a level of literacy in the subject matter that most political journalists do not have, and also a willingness to challenge statements and assumptions by politicians about the economy that they’re not currently in the habit of doing. But if the political press corps were more economically literate, and used that literacy intelligently, the level of BS in our political debates might actually fall.


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  1. collapse expand

    The idea that Obama’s numbers have declined across the board in large part due to the state of the economy is only briefly acknowledged (“or [the public] can’t hear [Obama] over the bad economic news”).
    No sh*t, Sherlock.You see, this is the problem with your analysis of the problem. I am going to boldly go out on a limb and guess that you supported the idea of a trillion dollar “stimulus” that was pushed right out of the gate when Obama started his Presidency. All this was done expressly to intervene in the private economy and boost it out of the recession. I am also going to boldly go out on a limb and say that you supported Obama’s idea of health care reform and how it was implemented in the face of intense opposition.

    Lets forget Obama’s salesmanship skills for a while.You now want to have it both ways – i.e. On the one hand, you think Obama’s economic policies such as health care bill, stimulus etc will turn around the economy in the short and the long terms AND on the other you want to pretend as though the “bad economic news” is completely isolated from his policies.

    You refuse to even look at the possibility that there are businesses out there who are watching Obamanomics unfold and are holding back on making any new investments – is it possible that these people are voting with their check books and their general sense of where the country is headed?

    Instead you are more worried about how people are mistakenly attributing Obama’s decline in popularity due to his diminished political skills !

    But i do have to say this one thing in your favor – you did agree that political journalists are financially illiterate and the level of debate would be enhanced if they knew what they were reporting about.

    Of course they dont know a damned thing about economics, business, finance, fiscal policies, monetary policies,the role of incentives, etc.They possibly cannot care to know about such stuff.
    That didnt stop them from pontificating on how great Obama’s economic policies would be for the country. Back in 2008.

    The Washington Press corps dont want to cover “reality” in economics or politics for that matter – they just make things up.

    • collapse expand

      I believe the consensus among professional economists is that TARP (originally a Bush policy, continued under Obama) and the stimulus were both helpful in preventing a much more serious economic collapse than occurred, and that the latter had some positive effects on growth. Of course neither was pitched as a cure-all for our economic ills. The health care law is irrelevant. I take it you believe that Obama’s economic policies should be blamed for the state of the economy – as in, if there were no stimulus or TARP, we’d be in much better shape? If that is the case, I have not seen serious evidence for it but would be interested to see you make a case.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Great points John and I agree with most of it. Having spent far to much time following the political battles since about 2000, when it started falling apart, i can fully understand where you are coming from. There’s a couple of things that really irritate me about the media and first and foremost is they have become more of a social network than reporters. It is very apparent that they are nothing more than paid advertising reality show. The ratings determine revenue so the key is to keep people watching rather than giving them hard facts they should know. How many times does a show have a great debate going with a couple of competing views where they are really getting to the heart of the matter on an important issue when bam, we’re out of time folks, next up a story about Lindsay Lohan spotted naked in Italy. What a joke. Add to that is the problem when the host fails to ask the most logical follow-up question to a statement that they know was a complete lie, because they fear the guest refusing to come back.

    At this point about the only show I can watch with any sense of real reporting is Fareed Zakaria on Sunday’s. We’re all aware of the story that our leaders want to keep us stupid to keep us under control. Whether you subscribe to this view or not the one thing that is certain our coverage of news in this country does very little to bring intelligence to the table on a regular basis.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist and author who writes about science, environment, various forms of government dysfunction, and, against my better judgment, American politics. Also: the media and the future of journalism. My work has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Wired, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. In a previous life I was an investigative/explanatory reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. The edge of chaos, BTW, is that narrow zone between stasis and chaos where complexity emerges and interesting things happen.

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