Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Worthless Political Journalism

I'm beginning to think that most media coverage of the election should be shifted to the 'sports' section of the newspaper. There's precious little substantive reporting of the sort that actually serves any civic purpose -- e.g. helping citizens to decide who they should vote for come November. Hell, most of it isn't even objective sports reporting (polls, etc.), but gossipy fluff about 'expectations' and 'what person X needs to do' in order to receive favourable reporting from oneself and other journalists. The media shapes perceptions through this process of allegedly reporting perceptions, and somehow these stories of mirrors within mirrors, reflecting nothing but themselves, is supposed to constitute news. Perhaps the 'entertainment' section is where they really belong: fluff that is only news because the media focus on it, alongside celebrities that are famous for nothing more than being famous. Smoke and mirrors, the lot of it.

As noted by the navel-gazing NYT:
It is not clear whether [Mrs. Clinton's] substantive case [against McCain] would break through the story line about how well she would do in easing tensions with Mr. Obama and unifying the party.

Is there not anything more important at stake in this election than clashing personalities, emotions, and tribalism? Not the economy? Not foreign policy? Obama's liberal internationalism or McCain's hotheaded belligerence and moral posturing -- not a difference that matters, perhaps? Or at least not as much as whether Clinton gestured enough during her speech to convey whole-hearted support for Obama. It's sickening. Just sickening.

What ever happened to the Fourth Estate? To the civic role of the press in a flourishing democracy? To the idea that their purpose, as journalists, is to educate and inform citizens on the pressing issues of the day? Where are the public broadcasters when you need them?

This ranting and exhortation is all very well, but I wish something could come of it. (Perhaps one day it will, if enough people come to recognize and deplore the problem.) It would be nice if the media could be shamed into raising their standards -- just imagine if they had to affix an immature-looking horse stamp on all their substance-free political reporting, or banish it to the 'entertainment' section as I suggested above. As it is, they get to pretend they're doing "serious" journalism, as a high-status "newspaper of note". And we're supposed to take them seriously! What a sham.


  1. I think it would probably be detrimental to sports journalism, since the sports section is, with the business section, probably the section of the paper that is, in most papers, most consistently decent in its quality. I think you're quite right that political journalism is most similar to entertainment journalism: it's a gossip section about a different sort of celebrity, but that's what most political journalism seems to be.

    But I think the question, "Whatever happened to the Fourth Estate?" is a bit like the question, "Whatever happened to Plato's commonwealth?" This has been pretty standard since the beginning; what changes over time seems to be not so much the quality but how bland or sensationalizing the reporting is.

  2. Brandon, it could go in the "lifestyles" section.

  3. I agree with Brandon- the sports section is too good and often the sports writers are both witty and erudite- something infrequently seen amongst the political writers.

    I wonder though whether its to do with the fact that citizenship is not an occupation but a leisure activity- I go to work every day and because I enjoy intellectual stimulation read stuff in the evening- but not everyone does. And given demands on all of our time- in the precious moments of leisure that they have to devote to it are going to probably prefer an easier piece focussing on personality.

    I understand your fury perfectly- and hope in the context of your earlier post that I managed to stay on topic!

  4. In Germany, it is only a bit better. Here, the main interest of the "serious media" lies on possible coalitions after the next elections, especially, whether the social democrats should work with the Left Party in the bund or the bundeslands.
    This really belongs to "sports". One could discuss as well about the players a soccer team should pick.


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