Thursday, October 21, 2004

Got a Dunce, Got a Dunce

Last Sunday’s "Media Matters" column by David Shaw in the Los Angeles Times pulled one of those incredible shrinking IQ tricks that made me wonder if the long format of his essay was dangerous—it left him with the opportunity to talk himself out of the good points he originally made. (I’d link to the essay, but the LA Times makes you pay for access, damn them, so I’m stuck quoting.)

The title sums up his major point: “Significant shift of polls suggest media’s failure.” That certainly sounded true enough to me before Shaw even began. Here is a quick rundown of the first half the column:

Every other poll I saw showed similar seismic shifts, and I don’t think all these shifts can be attributed to Kerry’s having “won” the debate.


What I think happened in that first debate is that Americans had the chance to see (and evaluate) both men standing and speaking on their own, without the filters of handlers or the news media.


But the news media are not supposed to obfuscate or exaggerate. They’re supposed to illuminate.


What the post-debate shift in voters’ perceptions of Kerry ultimately tells me, much as I hate to say it, is that the news media have done a pretty poor job of campaign coverage. If Kerry can so dramatically change how people perceive of him in just 90 minutes on television…it suggests to me that the media hadn’t fulfilled their responsibility to tell voters what Kerry is really like, what he stands for, what he would do, who he is.

I will avoid saying “Well, duh!” because that’s what my loser brother-in-law know-it-all says to shut down any conversation. But how can the writer who weekly pens "Media Matters" not realize how infrequently the media tend to cover what matters? Didn’t he see the media get sent off on a slow boat to Vietnam—but not as far as Cambodia, at least not at Christmas--and away from the truth?

Nope. Instead he looks for ameliorating factors for the media of which he is just one swimming, typing planarian. He suggests Kerry hasn’t defined himself well. (Perhaps.) He suggests “the people weren’t paying attention,” but of course doesn’t admit that even if they were, the piffly Kerry stories prevalent in the media wouldn’t have helped them much (which might be why they don’t pay attention?).

But ultimately he has to say the press has let us down. After all, it is a big election with big issues, Shaw admits, or he has a source, admit (it would be so scary to go out on a limb in a think piece without the cover of an expert).

What kills me is Shaw falls prey to the very thing he seems to be complaining about near the end of the piece when he claims, “I’m writing this before the third debate polls are in, but there were no major gaffes or coups by either candidate so I doubt that the voters’ sense of the men will change as dramatically as it did after the first debate.”

Gaffes or coups. That’s all that could change things. Uh-huh. And at the beginning he couldn’t even say Kerry won the first debate without putting won in quotes—so what was the gaffe or coup there?

Shaw completely discounts the horrible way media memes are created and then never altered. The best for instance is the joyous replaying of Howard Dean’s yi-hah moment in Iowa, as it, at last, proved he was as unstable and over-emotional as the press had always said he was. Never mind the context, that he was speaking to a room of wildly cheering supporters who had just lost a caucus they long thought they’d win, and they needed some bucking up. The media certainly accomplished those last two words, if you change the first letter. Notice, too, how one current media complaint is Kerry is a cold fish and notice, three (as it were), that the mainstream media failed to complain when Bush channeled his inner-Andover cheerleader when he shouted his way through debate two.

One of the non-candidate-specific memes is the horse race—all those polls that seem as scientific as Bush’s view of evolution and greenhouse gasses and missile defense. Crucial to the horse race is the “defining moment,” whether that’s Muskie crying in 1972 or Dukakis not defending Kitty with a baseball bat from hypothetical debate rape in 1988. But do these trumped up pseudo-events really tell us what a candidate would be like as a president? No, but they make good television.

And that’s what matters to the media, and why Shaw might want to rename his column Media Muddles.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You go George!

5:23 PM  

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