Media Hacks: Why Our National Press Corps Is Failing the Public Abysmally
It's hard to imagine a greater irony than our political press, obsessed as it is with process stories, dubiously sourced rumors and trivial fluff, lamenting the fact that we can't have a “serious national debate.”
Consider what may be the funniest lede in this cycle so far: “The elevated presidential campaign of ideas, fleetingly achieved after months of mudslinging, died Tuesday,” wrote Reid Epstein. “It was three days old.” Epstein went on to catalog all of the mean things the two campaigns were saying about each other, as if this is an election year or something.
But what makes that so hilarious is that Eptein's piece appeared in Politico exactly two days after the rag ran a piece titled, “Forget the budget: Paul Ryan is hot!,” and just two days before a penetrating analysis headlined, “Fit for office: Candidates in best shape ever.” ( Politico is also slapping together a quickie e-book about how the Obama campaign is “roiled in turmoil,” which is just a campaign classic that never gets stale.)
We can't have serious debates in this country because we don't have a news media that offers us serious debates. Rather than dig into candidates' claims, we get he-said/she-said drivel and doses of whatever conventional wisdom is flying around the Beltway – we get dueling campaign “narratives” rather than a serious look at issues of substance, which seem to bore most campaign reporters.
That has long been the case, but we appear to have entered a new environment, one that Dave Roberts of Grist described as an era of “post-truth politics” – “a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation).” The Romney-Ryan campaign appears to have embraced this reality, running a campaign that is unprecedented in its mendacity. While reporters and fact-checkers can -- and do -- highlight the inaccuracies of specific claims, it's beyond the reach of mainstream journalism to point out the pattern for fear of appearing “biased.”
Consider a few examples of how our feckless fourth estate has performed during this cycle. We have Paul Ryan constantly being referred to as both a “serious” person, and a “fiscal conservative.” In a fawning profile, the New York Times, which conservatives liken to Pravda, told its readers that Ryan “has become a particular favorite of — and powerful influence on — the intellectuals, economists, writers and policy makers who are at the heart of Washington’s conservative establishment.” The piece characterized him as “an earnestly interested, tactically minded policy thinker, with a deep knowledge of budget numbers.”
That image is based entirely on the conventional wisdom, but it's also divorced from objective reality. The New York Times is the same paper that employs Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who pointed out that over the course of a decade, Ryan's Roadmap would cut $1.7 trillion in public spending, whils slashing taxes, mostly on high earners, to the tune of $4.3 trillion, and would this increase the deficit by a tune of $2.6 trillion. “And this is what passes inside the Beltway for serious thinking and a serious commitment to deficit reduction,” Krugman quipped.
As for his reputation as a deep thinker, Nate Silver noted -- also for the New York Times -- that a statistical analysis of Ryan's voting record placed him at about the same spot on the ideological spectrum as Minnesota's tea party nutjob Michele Bachmann, whom the chattering classes rightly consider to be anything but serious.
Or look at Newsweek's cover story, by Niall Ferguson, about why Obama should be voted out -- it's so riddled with the most blatant falsehoods that Ferguson, perhaps unaware that there's this thing called Google, appears to have lied about which candidate he supported in 2008.