Horse-Race News Coverage Diminishes Both People and the Political Process

Opinion polls bring in the worst of two worlds: a simplistic view of politics as a sporting event with winners and losers, and the veneer of scientific impartiality.

Looking around the internet news sites today, I obviously found plenty of stories about the Wisconsin recall. Disturbingly, but unsurprisingly, virtually all of the coverage I found talked about whether Scott Walker would survive the day, whether the GOP would still control the legislature, what this means for Obama and Romney in the fall, and how this would affect the fight between labor unions and corporate America. What I couldn't find was how this would affect the people of Wisconsin. When did the media lose its way, and how can we get it back?

Opinion polls bring in the worst of two worlds: a simplistic view of politics as a sporting event with winners and losers, and the veneer of scientific impartiality. The internet has magnified this with easy, immediate access to polling data and psuedo-scholarly authors who torture these data until they confess. But politics isn't a sporting event - it's the process of who gets what, when, and how, and the lives of citizens of Wisconsin will change dramatically depending on who won the recall election today. I know it's easier to talk about jobs data as good for Obama's re-election or good for Romney, but underneath those data are millions of Americans who remain unemployed. I'm not nearly as worried about Obama's and Romney's futures as I am about the futures of those who continue to suffer either through underemployment, unemployment, or having given up completely in the job market. I'm not nearly as worried about who will win Ohio in November as I am about replacing automotive jobs lost in the Rust Belt. And I'm certainly not interested in blame, I'm interested in solutions for these people.

It's easy to get wrapped up in winners and losers, and honestly it's easier than actually thinking about how our lives will change based on electoral outcomes and what is better for America. The media is at least complicit in this, and is quite likely to blame. I hope for better, but meanwhile I'll continue to marvel that people like Nate Silver are taken seriously as statisticians and that they drive the agenda more than those who actually think about the impact of these elections on regular people.

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Arnold Smithson June 06, 2012 at 07:20 PM
Thanks Jason. Unfortunately thinking of things in shades of gray means the world is complicated and can't just be solved by blaming Republicans/Democrats, and I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with that idea. I always tend to believe that people drive the media as much as, if not more than, the media drives the people's perceptions.
Lester Gabriel June 06, 2012 at 08:14 PM
I also believe that the people drive the media. Beyond that, at least in theory, the people are supposed to drive the political process. Popular sovereignty and consent of the governed are the basis for this Nation's founding. Until we figure out how we can encourage men and women of integrity and accountability to run for office, we will continue to flounder
Jason Atkinson June 06, 2012 at 08:34 PM
True in multiple ways really. The media is driven by people, literally it is people who comprise the media, and spread the propaganda. Also, the media can only drive public perception to the extent that people are complicit in allowing the media to do so. Too many people find one source that they trust, and believe whatever comes from that person, no matter how nonsensical it may be.
Arnold Smithson June 06, 2012 at 09:13 PM
Lester - you make good points. Unfortunately there are any number of barriers to popular sovereignty and any real consent of the governed. Government officials do whatever they can to not be transparent with their constituents and to hide action, and to create a situation where credit can be spread among a large number of representatives but blame can't be attributed to any single individual. If the average citizen can't become meaningfully informed with a reasonable amount of effort, then I'm not sure how it can be fixed. Integrity might be easier, but only if we eliminate basically any financial incentive to being a member of Congress other than their salary. Things like the recently passed STOCK Act will help, but as long as they money plays such a major role in the system and representatives can use their service in Congress to get highly paid consulting jobs and lobbyist positions down the road I'm not sure that we'll start getting those people with integrity running for office anytime soon.
Elizabeth Talbot June 08, 2012 at 12:45 AM
I think a great example of this horse race coverage was today's editorial in the Free Lance Star which gloated over the defeat of public employees and their unions. The writer enthused about Walker's success, claiming the state budget was balanced and that even unemployment was down. Factcheck.org, relying on Bureau of Labor statistics, had come to the opposite conclusion about Walker's claims of job creation. Instead, Wisconsin lost jobs and even lagged behind other states in job creation. So if the balanced budget did not lead to increased employment, what should the people of Wisconsin do next? Truth is a casualty of horse race coverage.


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