Thursday, March 6, 2008

Where the press fails in coveraging Presidential races

A colleague suggested we are being unfair to complain that the press doesn't cover "the issues" but instead covers "the horse race."

He says the press covers the issues thoroughly at the beginning of the season; later, everybody pretty much knows the issues and the candidate stands, so attention shifts to the horse race--which is, really, what the readers care about most too, and that's where the news is. "But don't blame the media if you weren't paying attention when the platforms were getting nailed together. The story's moved on. Where were you?"

Besides, it's trivially easy to find out candidate positions and every other important thing -- it's all over the Internet. "The story is now about process. What exactly would you have the mass media reporting on?"

HE MAKES SOME GOOD POINTS: The *issues* and the stands of the candidates on the issues (to the extent they have them), and more clearly, their ideologies regarding government, are by mid campaign well understood by anybody who cares. I think even on an instinctive level, most voters, even without paying a lot of attention to specific coverage, have a firm grasp that, for example, McCain is a conservative Republican of a certain stripe, and Obama and Clinton are liberal Democrats broadly in agreement ideologically. TO that extent, that kind of coverage doesn't really matter -- which is why few people watch the debates. They don't expect significant surprises.

Where I think coverage falls short is in two areas.

First, a lot of the coverage is He said She said -- one politician makes a set of claims about an issue, or a solution, or his own history, or his rival's, and the press reports it flatly that way. There is rarely any attempt to put the candidate's claim or assertion *in context*. Many of the things they said could easily be looked up.

I know the press publishes occasional deeper pieces where they summarize these claims and counterclaims and interpret and contextualize them. But there is a strong tendency in the press (and not just the political press) to feel that once they've written about a topic, it's Done. They never need to revisit it. Everyone on earth has read that piece, and has it readily at hand for context for subsequent coverage. "We already wrote about that" is the most common remark when you complain about lack of coverage of certain kinds.

Subsequent coverage often sounds like the reporter never even read the deeper contextual coverage.

A: Lie
B: Lie
A: Blather
B: Counterblather
et al. for a month

In-depth story: What's the reality? Let's look.

The next day:
A: Lie
B: Lie
A: Blather
B: Counterblather
et al.

You don't have to choose sides or be ideological yourself or lose objectivity when you add context to reportage. Senator Blather says "Immigrants/gays/rightwing prayer nuts/Canadians/greens/conservatives have had this and that bad impact on the noble state of Iowa." Context: Endless research studies show no such bad impact, in fact many good impacts. But no, we can't write that; instead, we call up an ideological/partisan rival Senator (or approved thinktank) and get a quote from them. Problem with that approach is, you often just get two partisan/ideological "sides" of an issue, which often has more than two sides to it.

I remember some issue being argued about by the politicians, and the WSJ published an editorial offering a third alternative solution to the problem, an alternative not being discussed by any of the pols. The following week a major article in the news section reported on this issue and summarized all the proposed solutions -- leaving out the one that appeared on *their own editorial pages* just a few days before.

I'm sorry, this is poor reporting.

And I think it's poor reporting to make the readers do all the work.

The second way they fall short falls out of the Horse-Race obsession. Politics isn't just about who wins and who loses. Politics is also about how the nation will be "run" by the government. It's about problems and solutions, and ideas for solutions. We always need more ideas for solutions, not fewer. When you focus so narrowly on the horse race aspects, then you only focus on the ideas proposed by the two main candidates who have a chance of winning (or the five candidates early on, and then as they drop out, their ideas drop out too). This means there is no point in covering the major underlying issues that power these campaigns - and the hopes and dreams of the electorate to create a better, more peaceful and prosperous nation.

More specifically, it means giving as little attention as possible to any third parties or independent candidates who have no real chance of winning the election. Green, Independent, Libertarian, Peace&Freedom, and Rainbow Coalition parties have ideas too. In fact, *all* they have is ideas, since they have no chance of actually winning. But that's *good* because can offset the instinct of the winning politicians to avoid taking any actual positions because they will offend or arouse some constituency. They try to be as idea-free as possible -- they go for slogans and feel-good themes -- Change is the one of the day, though exactly *which* changes, where and how, and who will get nailed by those changes--well, naturally, you'd be a fool to be too specific about that. You hold off as long as possible in the campaign, while your opponent tries to trick you into being too specific - so s/he can leap on it.

So we bounce back and forth between idea-free Democrat liberals and idea-free Republican conservatives -- candidates who never really are able to satisfy, once in the Presidency, the dreams of liberals or of conservatives. (Though sometimes they fulfill the dreams of the opposite side by accident -- the old joke about Bush being the best Democrat and Clinton the best Republican the nation has ever had in the Presidency has some resonance.)

In my view, the press can stir things up usefully by giving more attention to the *ideas* of the third-party and distant-loser candidates--because it injects new ideas into tired old debates. Most of those ideas are nuts, or impractical, or *seem* impractical, or are too novel or too early. But in *some* cases they will find the voters reacting, maybe surprisingly, to one or another idea. Once that idea gains enough traction -- of course the mainstream candidates will co opt the idea -- if they have any brains. It's irritating to the third-party candidate, no doubt--but it's the only way to drive fresh solutions into a winner-take-all electoral system that drives all plausible candidates to a muddled middle ground.

Historically, it's why we have Social Security in the first place. Apparently, this notion was a plank of the Socialist Party during the early 1920s. It was popular - so the Democrats stole it. Without the Socialists (and unfortunately their bomb-throwing extremist fringists giving them publicity the press wouldn't otherwise have given their ideas), we'd have to Social Security. Whether you think that's a good thing or not, the point is, the Socialists could *afford* to throw out an idea so radical and expensive and nutty - they weren't going to win anyway, all they *had* were ideas!

We're throwing away a golden opportunity here.

Of course, to do this right, the press would actually have to decide which nonwinner ideas to give attention to - this would require judgement, because the press wouldn't want to (and I wouldn't want them to) give equal weight to all ideas, otherwise we'd be reading pensive essays about the neo-Nazis or the nutty ideas of the LaRouche party. And this kind of judgement is anathema to the modern press. And more's the pity.

The whole notion of avoiding any kind of value judgement needs to be reexamined, seriously reexamined. Our strategy and tactics for avoiding being accused of bias have led to bad consequences all around.

(And, trivially but annoying, as a Libertarian I do notice how reporters manage somehow, magically, to inject their little notes of incredulous disbelief when reporting, in the once-per-season writeup, on the Libertarian candidate. Having your cake and eating it too -- Priceless!)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

New Drew Carey Video Debunks ‘War on Middle Class’ Myth

"More Americans own homes, drive cars, go to college and use cell phones than ever"

Press release from (the wonderful) Reason Foundation:

Los Angeles (February 5, 2008) – Sen. Hillary Clinton wants to "restore the middle class.” Republican presidential candidates promise to ease the “burden” on the middle class. And CNN’s Lou Dobbs regularly chronicles what he calls the “war on the middle class.” Yet, despite all this doom and gloom about America’s economy,’s Drew Carey shows that middle class is actually better off than it ever has been.

Carey, the host of The Price Is Right, says instead of simply looking at how much something costs, we should examine how many hours it takes a middle class worker to buy something. Carey points out that in the 1980s, “Few regular people could afford cell phones because the average worker had to sweat for 460 hours to buy one.” Today the average worker has to put in just three hours of work to buy a cell phone.

“Only the rich owned cars a century ago. But today, average Americans can afford shiny SUVs. In terms of time, the cost of a car has fallen by more than 70 percent [since 1908],” Carey explains in the video. “The story’s the same for necessities. Food is 84 percent cheaper. Clothing is 87 percent cheaper.”

"In the midst of an election season where most politicians will say anything to get a vote, this video should be required viewing not just for voters but for everyone in the media," says the editor of, Nick Gillespie. "The plain truth is the middle class is doing great thanks to free trade and other policies that are frequently scapegoated at political rallies and on cable news."

Full Video Online

The new Drew Carey video, Living Large: America’s Middle Class, is online at An archive of videos hosted by Drew Carey is here.

About is an online community showcasing the best libertarian ideas and videos on the Internet. gives you the opportunity to create videos, share videos and suggest topics for Drew Carey’s upcoming documentaries. For more information, please visit

About Reason Foundation

Reason Foundation is a nonprofit think tank dedicated to advancing free minds and free markets. Reason Foundation produces respected public policy research on a variety of issues and publishes the critically acclaimed Reason magazine, and its website For more information, please visit


Chris Mitchell, Director of Communications, Reason Foundation, (310) 367-6109

Bar Stool Economics

Now this is astonishing, supposedly devised by David R. Kamerschen, Ph.D., Professor of Economics, University of Georgia.

Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this:

* The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.
* The fifth would pay $1.
* The sixth would pay $3.
* The seventh would pay $7.
* The eighth would pay $12.
* The ninth would pay $18.
* The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59.

So, that's what they decided to do. The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve.

'Since you are all such good customers, he said, 'I'm going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by $20. Drinks for the ten now cost just $80.

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes so the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free.

What happens to the other six men - the paying customers? How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his 'fair share?'

They realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody's share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer. So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man's bill by roughly the same amount, and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay. And so:

* The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).
* The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33%savings).
* The seventh now pay $5 instead of $7 (28%savings).
* The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% savings).
* The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% savings).
* The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% savings).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink for free. But once outside the restaurant, the men began to compare their savings.

'I only got a dollar out of the $20,'declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man,' but he got $10!'

'Yeah, that's right,' exclaimed the fifth man. 'I only saved a dollar, too. It's unfair that he got ten times more than I!'

'That's true!!' shouted the seventh man. 'Why should he get $10 back when I got only two? The wealthy get all the breaks!'

'Wait a minute,' yelled the first four men in unison. 'We didn't get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!'

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.

The next night the tenth man didn't show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important.

They didn't have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

And that, boys and girls, journalists and college professors, is how our tax system works. The people who pay the highest taxes get the most benefit from a tax reduction. Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore. In fact, they might start drinking overseas where the atmosphere is somewhat friendlier.

Shave the Whales? Or shave the cows?

Eat a whale and save the planet, a Norwegian pro-whaling lobby said on Monday of a study showing that harpooning the giant mammals is less damaging to the climate than farming livestock.

"Greenhouse gas emissions caused by one meal of beef are the equivalent of eight meals of whale meat," the study said.

Dog, Cat, Rat: Metaphor for Human Relations? Hardly!

A friend sent a link to a short YouTube video showing a dog patiently sitting with a cat perched on his back, and a rat sitting on the cat's back -- in a gracious harmony. Concludes my friend: "Now if they can do it....why can't human beings do it?"


Human beings DO do it. Most humans, most of the time, in most places.

Don't let the assholes skewer your perceptions too much. Go to a ball game, or a concert, or the movies, or a mall on a Saturday afternoon. See all those people, of every type, getting along? They aren't fighting. There aren't hardly any police around, even. When the assholes start fighting, or shooting, or hating, or launch wars, it makes headlines.

By contrast, when a dog and a cat and a rat get along, the video gets one million hits on YouTube. A video clip of a black and a white and an Indian sitting on a bench talking quietly or playing cards together wouldn't get a million viewers on YouTube - it wouldn't be news.

Perspective, buddy.

Not that there's anything wrong with group below sponsoring even more goodness and getting-alongness -- the assholes sure do make life hard on the rest of us.

I read a book where the author argues that the Us and Them, or the Tribe and the Other distinction, which is built into humans (and other animals), is a chief culprit. When you can view some people as Others, you can with amazing equanimity do the most horrible things to them, things you'd never do to people in your own tribe. The author argued that the spread of getting-along and the growing perception around the world that cruelty to others is a bad idea, is based on the growth of the idea that all men are brothers, all of us are one tribe -- the growth of the circle of Us and the narrowing of the circle of Other. And that the key to more civilization in the world is pushing the idea that there are no Others, there is only one tribe. To make it harder to contemplate acts of brutality. I like that idea; this group that sponsors this video is pushing that idea too, which is good. Their underlying argument is specious ("If they can do it why can't we?") but what they are trying to do is dead on.

The SNL Skit and Uneven Coverage of Obama vs Clinton: The Horserace Metaphor and Its Sins...

A colleague pointed to an Associated Press study on March 4, 2008 titled "Study Shows Media Came Down Harder on Obama After 'SNL' Spoof.

He remarked that "It's a pretty sad state of affairs when it takes an SNL skit to finally make the mainstream media do its job."

Oh, it's worse than that. Far worse.

The mainstream press is an embarrassment to us all, most of the time. This is just a particularly flagrant example.

OTOH, Hillary would naturally get more press pressure because she has a history, and it's always hard to pander to a voting audience when you have a history, and it's really easy to snipe because her history is right there easy for everybody to see; Obama doesn't have much history, which would be a bigger problem in a rational world but there's no easy reportage there, and hard reportage comes hard, so they put it off and use the easy story.

Later, when Obama sweeps up the campaign today, starting tomorrow all the press will be on Cheap Shots At Obama duty for the remainder of the campaign. They still won't do any hard work, though.

Another colleague replied that the NPR show "On the Media" made the same points at I watched the podcast and was shocked to find that somebody agrees with me, always a worrying sign.

Someone then pointed out that the press isn't being very hard on Clinton considering all the dirt during Bill's presidency, from Whitewater to Travelgate, from Monica to the health-care planning commission. "It seems like if the press were really tough on her, they'd drag out those old scandals." He says he thinks the press is being too easy, not too hard, and seems unwilling to do any digging at all.

He makes an excellent point, though the podcast above doesn't address it. Clinton has LOT of baggage, but it's now treated as old news -- echoes of Bill's "Put it behind us!"

I get the impression there's a strange kind of two-phase reality for the press when it comes to presidential elections: Phase one, nomination battle: No real effort to dig in and help voters figure out who is the best candidate, or what's up with any particular candidate - Almost all effort is focussed on the horserace aspects. If you hand them something on a silver platter (and the NYT publishes it), then they will cover it -- but only as it impacts the horserace.

Phase two is the main race between the two major party candidates. After six months (or these days, a year and a half) of covering these candidates in the nomination races, the press is bored stiff and desperate for something new, and any raw-meat rumors or scandal or inconvenient fact or contradiction - or something as simple as stumbling down a stair or stumbling over your words -- and they descend like wolves.

Then they spend another period after each episode analyzing the impact of their coverage on -- the horserace!

Is this any way to run the national media?