Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The election horserace is not news

Once again, we have descended into election season and the news media will be full of campaign coverage. This is a damaging habit for our society; many important issues will be ignored, and these conversations will reinforce the pernicious attitude that electoral politics are of supreme importance. While many intelligent people have written rants against this sadly predictable shift in attention, I'm thinking that we can do more. I'm thinking that this could be the motivation for a movement to pressure the news media to maintain coverage of broad issues, and not dwell of the idiocy of the campaign. What do you think?

I don't have many ideas right now for how to organize this opposition, aside from writing a letter to my typical news station -- NPR. But I'll give a little outline of how much coverage is appropriate for the campaign.

The first consideration is whether campaign news is useful -- will it affect any of my decisions. I can see two possible uses: helping me decide which candidate (if any) to support; and helping me to anticipate policy changes that may occur over the next five years. However, most of this coverage is useless to the vast majority of people who will be voting for a candidate: either they have already decided, they aren't paying attention, or they will wait to see what the situation is as their own election-day approaches. I'm guessing that the only people who find this information useful are the big donors and party activists who are trying to figure out who has the best shot... but these political junkies will get their news from specialized publications, not mainstream outlets. As for predicting future policies, that's pretty useless at this point: elections are pretty unpredictable, as are the actual policies that will be implemented by the elected candidate. After all, G.W. Bush gave every indication that he was opposed to nation-building ("humble foreign policy" and all), and we saw how his Presidency played out.

So even if this reporting is not useful, it is still news. I'd still like to hear the results from the Iowa caucus, and that Bachmann dropped out. That would take all of 30 seconds to report; it does not justify an hour of "special coverage", plus all-day analysis the next day. Also, it is good to be informed about how our political system works, and so it's good to have an occasional feature story about how political campaigns are waged, but the day-to-day updates are just absurd.

So why do the news agencies focus on the election? Is it because they think it's important? These people do tend to be political junkies. Is it because it is easy? They can collect all their facts from election judges and campaigns (and polling data is common enough). However, I don't see how it's any easier for a talk-show to focus on this issue over any other -- there are plenty of other experts to invite on the show (but maybe political advocates are more eager and polished than non-political experts?). Finally, do they think this is what their audience wants? There are plenty of political junkies out there. This comes down to being a culture war of sorts (without the violence and harassment of the Republican's culture war) -- will news programming be determined by the interests of partisan hacks and those who have succumbed to the cult of the Presidency, or by the rest of us who realize that real life and real change is best found in places other than the campaign trail?

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