Why can't the media do a better job of covering elections?

In a 'post-journalism era', media outlets operate on routines, not innovation.

    When Ron Paul began questioning the powerful Federal Reserve, most media outlets turned away from him [EPA]
    When Ron Paul began questioning the powerful Federal Reserve, most media outlets turned away from him [EPA]

    New York, NY - With Congress supporting a new GOP budget, the president has a new issue to take our minds off war and the lack of a real economic recovery - not that he can wave a magic wand and simply create one.

    The presidential campaign that usually gets started in earnest in the autumn is already off and running with Barack Obama blasting his likely opponent Mitt Romney for backing a budget, created by Congressman Paul Ryan, that takes an axe to social programmes not already eviscerated.

    His well-crafted speech in Florida threw down the gauntlet and sought to pre-empt the GOP game plan, although it is likely they will ignore him - since they prefer to run more on attitudes than issues. Expect more personal attacks.

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    Obama called the Republican budget "so far to the right" on the political spectrum that it makes the Republicans' 1994 Contract with America "look like the New Deal".

    "This isn't a budget supported by some small rump group in the Republican Party,” he said. “This is now the party's governing platform. This is what they're running on."

    He says it would create a form of "Social Darwinism" by pitting "the poor against the wealthy".

    Growing inequality

    Bear in mind that the House of Representatives, the body that backed the plan is - as are many of our institutions - totally unrepresentative. Perhaps, that's why Congress enjoys an approval rating of less than ten per cent.

    It has now become the "bully pulpit" that the White House was supposed to be, although this one is run by real bullies more comfortable with obstruction and personal destruction than law making.

    In a new book, 99-1, Chuck Collins tracks the country's growing inequality and also shows whose interests the legislators now serve. Hint: it's not the working people of the US. He writes:

    "The richest one per cent now owns over 36 per cent of all the wealth in the United States. That's more than the net worth of the bottom 95 per cent combined. This one per cent has pocketed almost all of the wealth gains of the last decade.

    "In 2010, the one per cent earned 21 per cent of all income, up from only eight per cent in mid-1970s. The 400 wealthiest individuals on the Forbes 400 list have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans."

    This is the reality that neither party is really talking about, because it would force an examination of the power centres of American wealth which are not accountable to a public vote, and often operate in the shadows.

    The Wall Street lobbyists - gutting financial reforms and opposing a global tax on transactions - are never discussed in the political race that keeps the debate simple, partisan and personality driven.

    The role of powerful companies are also mostly off-limits, because both Democratic and Republican candidates depend on their largesse.

    Who do you think lobbied to stop the end of subsidies to super wealthy oil and gas companies? They did.

    This issue became public at most for one day and, then, was quickly pushed off the agenda.

    'Too big too fail'

    In China, the prime minister attacks the banks there as too powerful, but in the US, the big ones are still considered "too big too fail" and allowed to suck off pro-bank financing schemes and bailouts by the privately owned Federal Reserve Bank.

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    When libertarian Republican Ron Paul began questioning the powerful Fed in his political campaign, the media turned away from him in droves, dismissing his candidacy - which challenged war and the money masters - as non-serious.

    They would rather talk about pregnancies than power.

    The result is a process built around denial and avoidance, where the most important issues get buried in the name of reporting and speculating about the horse race.

    Inanities replace information, and spectacles such as Sarah Palin's dramatised "debate" on a morning TV show get more ink than who's funding who.

    Issues are bandied about; interests are ignored.

    None of this is new. Some years back, I reviewed the post-mortem analysis of journalists - reviewing how political races were covered during 30 years. It was clear that the coverage fell into a recurring pattern, with the complaints and criticisms all predictable and, then, recycled, year after year.

    Why can't news outlets do a better job? That question is rarely explored.

    In what some media analysts have deemed a "post-journalism era", media outlets operate on routines, not innovation. Just like sports is mostly about winners and losers, so is politics. The networks genuflect and serve power, covering the politics of only two established parties and candidates with what Europeans call "extra-parliamentary movements" deemed illegitimate.

    They pursue what's called "electotainment" with constant profiles of personalities and constantly evolving snappier presentations to "sex it up" and reinforce as many controversies as possible to build viewer interest. Many viewers have already opted out of what are often contrived, babbling brooks of commentary.

    Note how, just as politics in the US revolves around well-known incumbents, TV news features its own "cast" of veteran incumbents as pundits who recycle a limited inventory of well-honed insights and old stories to show how smart they are. Much of them revolve around polls that rarely discuss why, relative to other countries, so few US voters even vote.

    Fewer minorities in the newsrooms

    The organisations that study the media also report fewer and fewer minorities in the newsrooms. EJC reports:

    "Even as the number of minorities in the United States is increasing, the number of minorities working in newsrooms continued to decrease in 2011, according to new figures from the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and the Center for Advanced Social Research (CASR) at the Missouri School of Journalism. This, despite the fact that minorities make up roughly 36 percent of the US population overall, according to 2010 Census numbers."

    This ensures that there will be fewer new voices or voices sensitive to minority issues on the air.

    Inside Story US 2012:  'Fear of a Black Republican'

    The new stories this year - such as the voter ID laws that will suppress minority voters, as raised by civil rights and human rights groups - seem to be an afterthought, as channel after channel regurgitate data with little perspective or context. The NAACP went to the UN's Human Rights Council hearings in Geneva to raise an issue that gets disturbingly little attention in newsrooms, or are competing feverishly to be first in reporting results.

    Few outlets remind viewers that the Republican primary vote that gave New Gingrich his one victory in South Carolina was not really about him, but about CNN's handling of the debate in a way viewers considered rude and biased. It was an anti-media vote - not a pro-Newt endorsement.

    Respect for the media seems to be at an all-time low on both the right and the left. In fact, even as CNN "upgraded" its graphics and on-air newsroom "look", it reportedly lost half its viewers. CNN competitors Fox and MSNBC, with small cable audiences relative to larger network audience shares, do less and less reporting, instead offering diametrically opposed partisan "shows" that feature highly politicised perspectives.

    Whatever it is, it’s not journalism - as the Comedy Channel reveals night after night on the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. They, at least, show how overhyped, absurd and inaccurate so much of the coverage really is.

    Thus, our media coverage plays as intense a role in undermining democracy as the relative handful of wealthy donors who now dominate and finance our politics.

    Yet the campaign financers are a subject of growing debate, but the role of the media is not. And on top of it, media companies are the beneficiary of much of the political advertising, and hence have a big interest in the game that they not only "cover", but help create.

    News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at NewsDissector.net. His latest book is Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street and his film is Plunder. He hosts a show on Progressive Radio Network. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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