About this Blog

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> Media

What's So Bad about the JournoList?

Tucker Carlson has this to say about the title question:

We're not contesting the right of anyone, journalist or not, to have political opinions. (I, for one, have made a pretty good living expressing mine.) What we object to is partisanship, which is by its nature dishonest, a species of intellectual corruption. Again and again, we discovered members of Journolist working to coordinate talking points on behalf of Democratic politicians, principally Barack Obama. That is not journalism, and those who engage in it are not journalists. They should stop pretending to be. The news organizations they work for should stop pretending, too.

I disagree with part of this. Partisanship is not "by its nature dishonest, a species of intellectual corruption." Partisanship for the sake of partisanship is indeed corrupt - e.g. Tammany-style patronage politics - but partisanship that comes about because of big, important differences on issues that matter is not. American democracy is unthinkable without the two political parties, so partisanship can't be all bad.

What it can be, however, is conspiratorial and secretive. Our system of government provides for an open process in which free-wheeling debate is encouraged. That's what happens when you combine freedom of speech with regularly scheduled elections. But certain partisan practices can take the most vital parts of the debate behind closed doors, as allies meet in secret to work out disagreements among themselves before they offer a public message to the country.

That's pretty much how the first party system developed in the 1790s. The country split over big issues like whether to align with France or Britain, the Bank of the United States, and the federal assumption of state debts. Political alliances formed that were quite unlike what the Framers of the Constitution had envisioned. They weren't a matter of the big states coordinating against the little ones, or representatives from a single state working together. Instead, alliances were trans-sectional and ideological in nature: the Pinckney's of South Carolina allied with Alexander Hamilton of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia in cahoots with Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania.

This is what gave birth to the party caucus - the closed-door meeting of like-minded partisans to work out differences without the public nosing in. On the presidential level, we can see its machinations as early as 1792, when the developing Republican party backed George Clinton of New York to replace John Adams as Vice-President. Clinton received 50 Electoral Votes, which was only possible if the electors coordinated with each other, in private, before they voted. The fact that the Clinton electors almost entirely came from four states - Georgia, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia - delineates further the nature of the "secret plot" to unseat Adams.

Secret caucuses turn Americans off. They long have. This is why the Democratic party in 1828 instituted the practice of the party convention, a broad, open public meeting of the party's members to work out differences in the light of day. Over time, the convention degenerated from an open and inclusive process into the "smoke filled" room that nominated Warren Harding. After the riots in Chicago in 1968, it was all but done away with. Today, the people, acting through primary elections, make the most important partisan decisions.

Ultimately, such secrecy is not good for discourse in an open society of free and equal citizens. While the issues between the Federalists and Republicans were pretty wonkish and technical - War with France or Britain? A federal debt? A national bank? - the accusations that they traded in public were extreme. Adams was portrayed as a monarchist who was secretly coordinating with his perfidious allies, Hamilton and the Arch-Federalists, to impose uniform religious practices upon the country and install a Federalist King, all backed by a standing army that had been justified by ginning up war fever. Jefferson, on the other hand, was tagged as an amoral atheist and Jacobin leveler whose radical ideas would bring the violence and anarchy of the French Revolution to the United States. And sure, both sides swore that their intentions were not so treacherous, but really how could anybody know? The parties were too much like secret societies back then. Nobody was really sure why they made the pronouncements they did.

All of this was nonsense, of course. Adams was a moderate, and Jefferson ended up retaining much of the Federalist program. They were friends before the political battles of the 1790s, and became friends once again in retirement. But there was something about the secret practice of party politics back then that transformed straightforward policy disagreements into something much more virulent, and turned dear friends into mortal enemies.

JournoList has too much in common with the old party caucus. First of all, it was secretive. Members only! "NO GIRLZ!" As Ezra Klein notes today, Carlson asked for admission, but was denied it by the list - much as John Adams would have been denied invitation to a meeting of the congressional Anti-Federalists. And, much like the party caucus, the reasons for the denial were ideological: he disagreed with them too much in public to have access to their private thoughts.

Was it used as a private forum to coordinate public activities? Klein and other JournoListers swear up one end and down the other that it was not, but the stories from the Daily Caller suggest that it was on occasion a place for ideologues to plan in secret. Honestly, we'll never know - and this is a chief problem with such a caucus. It inherently breeds suspicion, distrust, and ultimately conspiracy theories - thereby distorting and perverting the public discourse. JournoList was a years-long secret caucus that discussed...who knows what?...in private prior to public statements. Semi-knowledge of its existence and practices can only worsen ideological tensions, promote bad blood, and further sour an already acerbic public discourse.

Conservatives have long sensed that the mainstream media is tilted against them. Relatively few have suggested that it is a hard bias, i.e. an actual conspiracy by media types to present the news in a certain fashion. Instead, the inference has long been that political opinions reflect contested values - and our values are pervasive, influencing how we interpret and present the world to others in all sorts of subtle ways. And because journalists overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, as a group they strongly favor one set of values, which means their reporting inescapably does as well.

Somehow, Ezra Klein has managed to drain a little more water out of the already shallow pool of media objectivity. He's introduced the notion that, in some instances, it may not have been a soft bias, but instead a hard one. That's exactly the kind of suspicion and mutual distrust that a party caucus breeds. And, unless the full JournoList is opened to the public, nobody will ever know for sure.

JournoList looks to me to be yet another mile-marker on this country's return to a partisan press. This does not upset me very much at all. I think American democracy is unthinkable without the political parties, so I do not think that a partisan press is all that bad. And it might finally stop journalists and academics from acquiring the inherently political authority that comes with monikers like "objective news" or "social science" when they are in fact promoting subjective values. That would be a good thing. All in all, a partisan press is, weirdly enough, a very honest one in that you know fully where everybody is coming from, and nobody can claim for him- or herself the epistemologically ridiculous "God's eye view."

-Jay Cost

Does Jon Stewart Influence Public Opinion?

As a politics nerd, I have several subscriptions to very nerdy academic journals. One of them is Political Behavior. I like to keep the nerdiness quotient of this blog reasonably low, so it is rare that I actually blog on one of the articles in this journal, or any other for that matter.

But an article in the recent edition of Political Behavior caught my eye. It hooks into an ongoing discussion people have been having about the slant of political coverage, particularly over The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Written by Jonathan Morris of East Carolina State University, the article, entitled "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and Audience Attitude Change During the 2004 Conventions," is worth a discussion.

In recent years, scholars have found that late-night entertainment programs can have political effects - educating viewers and increasing interest in politics among the non-active. In particular, there has been a good bit of research into The Daily Show. Morris says, "Overall, the consensus of this research is that The Daily Show does have the potential to influence political discourse as well as overall attitudes."

Stewart, of course, has made no secret of his leanings toward the left - and others have noted that his show tends to skewer Republicans and conservatives more harshly than Democrats and liberals. Anybody who watches the show will probably see this tendency, but what of it? I never thought it mattered much, personally. Morris does a fair job of summarizing my view:

What if The Daily Show and Jon Stewart are friendlier toward Democrats and more critical of Republicans? Why should such a tendency be considered significant? The program is a half-hour, entertainment-based, talk show that openly mocks its own credibility as "fake news."

This has been my thinking for a while. I didn't think Stewart was particularly fair to Jim Cramer - for instance - but so what? Many who thought that interview was consequential are media types who don't have a good grasp of public opinion. And anyway, they're looking for copy - so invariably they'll make more of something like that than it deserves. In the ocean of American politics, that was just a tiny ripple. Does it really matter all that much?

Morris's analysis has given me some pause. He looks at The Daily Show's coverage of the two political conventions in 2004 to answer two empirical questions:

(a) whether or not The Daily Show's brand of humor during the 2004 party conventions was more sharply pointed at Republicans than at Democrats, and
(b) whether or not The Daily Show's audience during this time became more critical of the Republican nominee for President.

The conventions are a good way to test this hypothesis because there are very few differences between the events. They are scripted party infomercials that have a nearly-identical format.

Morris finds that the number of Daily Show jokes per convention was similar, but their content was different. Specifically:

Humor of a physical nature, which tends to highlight humorous appearance, momentarily odd behavior, incidental errors, or political miscalculation was employed at the Democratic Convention with much greater frequency than the Republican Convention. That is, political awkwardness was a much more common theme during the Democratic Convention. During the Republican Convention, on the other hand, political awkwardness was much less themed in favor of humor that focused on policy and character. Both policy and character shortcomings were exploited for laughs with significantly more frequency during the Republican Convention. [Emphasis Mine]

So, in other words, Democrats were covered in a "more light-hearted fashion," identified as pandering or bumbling. But the humor at the RNC took a "sharper edge," focusing on policy failures and character flaws. Thus, Morris answers his first question in the affirmative - The Daily Show was "more sharply pointed" at the GOP.

To answer his second question, he relies on the National Annenberg Election Study, which interviewed the same respondents before and after the conventions 2004. He examines in particular those who identified The Daily Show as one of their regular viewing choices to see if watching Stewart changed their views. Controlling for basic demographic and political factors (like race and partisanship), Morris finds that favorability toward President Bush after the RNC was negatively correlated with watching The Daily Show. In other words, all else being equal, watching Jon Stewart during the RNC made one less likely to be favorable of Bush. Morris also tested for other late night comics, as well as talk radio, newspaper, cable and network news - and did not find such a correlation anywhere else (though watching Letterman during the DNC was correlated with less favorability toward George W. Bush).

In particular, Daily Show viewers were less likely to say that "Bush is easy to like as a person," "Bush is trustworthy," and "Bush says one thing and does another" after the RNC. [Morris finds a similar result for Letterman: watching Letterman during the RNC made one less trusting of Bush.]

Now, before we go off proclaiming that this is definitive evidence of media bias influencing public opinion, some caveats are in order. First, Morris tested many types of media - the late night comedians, talk radio, cable and network news, and the newspapers. Generally speaking, few of these media had any appreciable effect on views about the candidates. Instead, the two biggest factors were partisanship and the views one had going into the conventions. In other words, the net effect of the conventions was mostly to have one's preexisting views reinforced. Beyond Jon Stewart [and to a lesser extent David Letterman and talk radio], the media had very little influence on its viewers. Broadly speaking, this cuts against the idea that bias in news or entertainment influences public opinion.

Second, we have to be careful not to overestimate the magnitude of Stewart's effect, even if we admit he has one. It's one thing to talk about a news slant having an influence on people. But when we're talking about an influence on people's political choices, we have to keep in mind the appropriate scale. Last week The Daily Show pulled in 1.6 million viewers. That's fewer than Adult Swim on Cartoon Network and just 1.2% of the total number of people who voted for President last November. Additionally, more than half of the core audience for The Daily Show identified itself as Democrat during both conventions in 2004, and only between 20% and 40% labeled themselves Independent, the political group whose votes are most up for grabs. So, we're talking about an even smaller fraction of the total population that might actually be swayed. And, from the looks of it, those who are otherwise inclined to the GOP click away from Comedy Central at 11 PM - meaning that while Stewart might be skewering Republicans most harshly, he is basically preaching to the converted.

So, I think the answer to the title question has to be an extremely qualified yes. Those who consistently view the Daily Show probably can be swayed to the left - but this is a relatively small slice of the public, which means that the effect on political outcomes is probably quite small. On top of that, the audience seems to be pretty self-sorted, anyway. So, the effect in 2004 might have been real on some people, but in the grand scheme of things it was quite modest.

Update: A few weeks ago, Gary Andres also wrote on the Morris article about Jon Stewart for The Weekly Standard online. His analysis is quite good. I encourage you to check it out!

-Jay Cost

Thoughts on the Second Debate

In Is Anyone Responsible?, Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar tackles the implications of media "framing:"

At the most general level, the concept of framing refers to subtle alterations in the statement or presentation of judgment and choice problems, and the term "framing effects" refers to changes in decision outcomes resulting from these alterations.

Most television news is framed in an "episodic" manner:

The episodic news frame takes the form of a case study or event-oriented report and depicts public issues in terms of concrete instances...For example, television news coverage of mass-protest movements generally focuses more closely on specific acts of protest than on the issues that gave rise to the protests...The identical pattern is observed in television news coverage of labor-management disputes, where scenes of picketing workers received more airtime than discussions of the economic and political grievances at stake.

Episodic framing is how the mainstream media tends to frame presidential campaigns. Here is the opening paragraph of MSNBC's First Read:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Part three of the four-part debate series is now over, and the one big conclusion is that nothing changed. And nothing changing isn't a good result for McCain. In need of a trajectory-changer (we're trying not to use the word "game"), McCain didn't get it. This now puts pressure on him to make the most of the final debate next week. However, McCain might have lost before the debate ever started -- at 4:00 pm ET Tuesday, when the final curtain fell on another horrible day on Wall Street. And now the Fed has just cut a key interest rate by half a point to 1.5%.

This is an episodic frame. McCain did not get a debate moment yesterday, so now he has to wait until his next opportunity to get one.

I think that this is the wrong way to understand the American electoral process. Think about what this assumes of the average voter. Suppose there was such a "moment" last night - like Barack Obama peeked at his watch, causing the talking heads to chatter about how out-of-touch he is with the concerns of regular people.

At this point, there are tens of millions of people who are, to some degree, undecided. They are right now making up their minds. Do we really believe that they would be so shallow as to make a decision on something as trivial as that? I don't. I know an undecided voter or two. They aren't shallow. They understand they have a responsibility to make a good decision - not based on the "gotcha" moments or other trivialities that capture the imagination of media types.

If we leave the episodic frame behind, how should we look at last night's debate? As a contest that one candidate wins and the other loses? I don't think so. I look at these debates as an opportunity for both candidates to provide persuadable voters with information that they might not yet have heard. So, of course this debate bored the pundits and junkies to tears: they've heard all this stuff already. But people in the middle might not have. The good folks over at Politico might consider it the worst debate ever, but people in the middle might have thought things like, "McCain has an interesting idea on subprime mortgages," or "I didn't know Obama's mom died from cancer. Health care reform must be very important to him."

And it's not that those folks made up their minds in that instant. [In all likelihood, plenty of people had positive thoughts about both candidates through the course of the contest.] Rather, those thoughts are data points that, along with other data points collected over the course of the month, help them make a decision at some point prior to Election Day. So, the debate is not best understood as a moment, but part of a process.

This is why my analysis of the first debate focused on who controlled the agenda. For what it was worth, I thought McCain did, and I received emails from Obama supporters who - after quoting this, that, and the other poll - told me I was nuts. Clearly, they said, Obama "won" and McCain "lost." But I dispute the electoral relevance of those terms. I think people's vote choices hinge on more substantive concerns, and they are formed not in a single moment but over time. So, I don't think it much matters who wins and who loses. I do think it mattered that the first debate focused on subjects where McCain has the "better" argument, like spending.

Last night's debate was different. McCain did not control its agenda. That was good for Obama, who was able to talk more about subjects where he has the "better" argument, like health care. The first debate passed without a single discussion about health care, but many about spending. Last night, there was more balance. The Obama campaign should be pleased about that.

What does this mean for last night? It doesn't mean McCain lost an opportunity to "change the trajectory of the race" or whatever episodic frame you heard your local journalist pushing. Here's the reality: barring some unprecedented meltdown from Barack Obama, John McCain was never going to have such a moment. That's not how the American public makes up its mind. Last night was not an episode, like some boxing match to be scored. It was one part of a bigger process, one that happens in October every four years as the broad middle of this country makes up its mind.

-Jay Cost

Monitoring the Media

George Mason University's Center for Media and Public Affairs published the major findings of a study of media coverage of the presidential candidates. It examines the nightly news on CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox (the first half hour of Special Report) from October 1 to December 15.

The results are interesting and consistent with what we generally know about media coverage.

First, the press gave both parties' insurgent candidates - Obama, Edwards, and Huckabee - more positive coverage than the frontrunners. Below is the percentage of positive coverage for all of the major candidates:

McCain: 33%
Giuliani: 39%
Romney: 40%
Clinton: 42%
Thompson: 44%
Huckabee: 50%
Obama: 61%
Edwards: 67%

Most of the insurgent candidates are all grouped at the end of the list. The only exception is McCain - whose negative coverage might be explained by the fact that his campaign belly-flopped in the summer. Generally, this ordering is consistent with what we know about media coverage: it tends to be more generous to the candidates who are behind, and harsher to the candidates who are ahead.

The report also finds that the emphasis of the news coverage is on the horse race and not substance. It finds that:

122 covered candidates' personal backgrounds
188 stories covered policy issues
191 covered campaign tactics
162 covered candidates' standings in the race

Only the first two types of stories have a real effect on vote choices - and they are outnumbered by the latter two. However, I am surprised by the roughly even split between the two groups (310 on substance and personality vs. 353 on the horse race ). While the campaign coverage has not been nearly as substantive as it could be, these numbers are more balanced than I would have guessed.

Finally, the report finds that the Republicans were covered more negatively than the Democrats. Specifically, "On the three broadcast networks, opinion on Democratic candidates split 47% positive vs. 53% negative, while evaluations of Republicans were more negative - 40% positive vs. 60% negative" Conservatives might explain this via recourse to anti-Republican media bias - but there might be other explanations as well. For instance, everybody seems to agree that the Democrats are in the better position heading into 2008. Perhaps the bearish orientation to the GOP has induced more negativity in press coverage.

The exception was Special Report with Brit Hume - which came out to be well balanced. The report finds, "[E]valuations of all Democratic candidates combined were split almost evenly - 51% positive vs. 49% negative, as were all evaluations of GOP candidates - 49% positive vs. 51% negative, producing a perfectly balanced 50-50 split for all candidates of both parties. " Interestingly, this is not the first time Hume's show has been found to be even-handed. A study in the December 2005 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics by UCLA's Tim Groseclose and Missouri's Jeffrey Milyo found that, by their metric, Special Report was one of the fairest shows on television.

-Jay Cost

The Media and Polls

I have commented on this phenomena several times at this blog - but it is worth another mention. It amazes me how poll-driven the analysis of the 2008 presidential race has been. Despite their current lack of value, polls remain a staple of almost all media analysis of the race.

A case in point is an otherwise excellent article from the Boston Globe today about Mitt Romney's rise in New Hampshire. The Globe goes into detail to cover how Romney has been paying attention to the state - by visiting, by advertising, by courting political elites. It's a good story - that is completely junked up by the introduction:

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mitt Romney boasted an enviable advantage in the first-in-the-nation primary state when he launched his campaign for president: A governor of Massachusetts, he also owned a house on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. But as recently as February, Granite Staters appeared to harbor little interest in the boy next door. Polls had him lagging far behind John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.

In the last few months, however, Romney has steadily pushed to the head of the Republican pack in New Hampshire, while his major rivals have lost ground. A mid-July poll had him opening up a 15-point lead.

Romney has benefited from larger forces shaping the race, notably, McCain's difficulties. But he has also run a campaign that might have been lifted straight out of "The Official Guide to Winning the New Hampshire Primary," if there were such a guide to the conventional wisdom. The formula: win over influential activists, advertise early, and lavish New Hampshire with attention.

Romney is leading in New Hampshire. Why? The polls say so. But why do the polls say that?

Perhaps most significantly, at least as far as early polls are concerned, Romney has spent nearly $725,000 since February on television ads highlighting his biography and fiscal conservatism on WMUR-TV, New Hampshire's only network-affiliated commercial station, as well as additional ads on cable stations. Neither McCain nor Giuliani has aired a single television commercial.

"You can't underestimate the importance of having ads right now," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, who has been tracking the race. "It doesn't mean they're going to vote for him necessarily, but he's fresh in their minds."

So, Romney's lead in the polls is due to the fact that he is the only one advertising on television in the state. As of July 1, Rudy Giuliani had $18 million in the bank. Just how much longer will Romney be the only candidate on the air in New Hampshire?

Thus, we should ask: are these polls worthwhile?

Early opinion polls are notoriously poor predictors of primary victors. In July 2000, George W. Bush was well ahead of McCain, who later won the primary by 19 points; Howard Dean towered over his rivals in the summer 2004. And in New Hampshire, Romney has had the luxury of being the only candidate on television for months.

I guess not! So, why does the Globe insist upon framing its story as "Romney has a lead because of all his smart work." This lead might very well be ephemeral. Would it not have been a better story to reference his lead, immediately argue how it is ephemeral, then go into how the lead right now is a consequence of Romney laying down a foundation to win New Hampshire in the winter? Reading the article, it seems clear that this is Andrew Smith's point. Why not turn that into the thesis of the article?

It was the same story over at Meet the Press this week. [Incidentally, this week was one of those weeks that MTP had nobody actually M'ingTP. It was all just journalists and pundits. I'm always struck by weeks like that. It's a sign of the authority of the media's pundit class. Why bring an Obama spokesman on to the show when journalists will come to talk about Obama?] The consensus was that Hillary is the frontrunner. Why? She is leading in the polls.


As of July 1, Barack Obama had $36 million in the bank. To argue that Hillary is the frontrunner in a way that is relevant is to argue that she will remain the frontrunner when Obama deploys this $36 million. Can anybody claim this? I sure can't. $36 mil can change a lot of minds. Hillary, meanwhile, has $45 million. Both are bound to collect more cash, too. And I honestly have no idea what will happen after the two top Democratic candidates spend $100 million (or more!) between the two of them to pick up the nomination. Anybody who claims they do is just tilting at windmills.

-Jay Cost

Obama and The Media Culture

I have watched with interest this Obama-Clinton dust up. On the merits, I do not find it a very interesting disagreement (full disclosure: I agree with Clinton on this). However, it was valuable to me because it confirmed my belief that Barack Obama is not running for the vice presidency. I was about 90% sure of this, thanks to his financial successes. No candidate running for the veep spots needs to raise so much. But I have wondered, in the back of my mind, whether Obama's strategy was to see if he could catapult to the top - and, barring that, finish well, not alienate the nominee, and get the veep spot. I guess not. He's stuck right now in second place, but he obviously intends to push to the top, even if that means attacking Hillary Clinton.

I have further enjoyed this disagreement because it makes explicit the media's ever-so-subtle, and self-interested, role in our politics. The whole disagreement involves whether or not the President should agree to meet with the leaders of nations we currently don't get along with. Obama said yes. Clinton said no. Both answers were given during the CNN/YouTube debate - so there was not a lot of time for subtlety. A sound bite was all they got. They had to make it good.

Since it turned into the dust up that it has turned into, both candidates have had an opportunity to amplify their positions. But does the media treat their latter statements as amplifications of views given during a ridiculously constricted format in which the next leader of the free world must share time with Mike Gravel (who, of course, took time out of his busy schedule of building fires in the woods and throwing rocks into ponds)?

Not really!

This is how E.J. Dionne characterized Obama's amplification:

In fact, Obama clearly sensed his own potential vulnerability and quickly tried to cauterize it. He was careful to say repeatedly that in talking with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Muslim leaders, he would send them "a strong message that Israel is our friend."

He also pulled back ever so slightly, insisting that "the notion that I was somehow going to be inviting them over for tea next week without having initial envoys meet is ridiculous."

To Mr. Dionne, it is not amplification - it is a backtracking for the sake of political expediency!

This is patently ridiculous. For Mr. Dionne to infer all of this about Obama's intentions simply because he could not say his peace in the time constraints imposed upon him by YouTube(!) is insulting to Mr. Obama.

Our politics is governed by the culture of the sound bite. Why is that the case? Is it simply because the sound bite is the way that the media prefers to operate? Not at all. After all, the sound bite is not in the interests of politicians - most politicians (hell, most everybody) cannot speak fluent soundbitese. Some of them can't speak it at all.

So, why do they go along with it? It is because there are penalties to those who refuse to participate. All cultures have within them such penalties for non-compliance - even if they are as simple as, "If you do not comply with our rules, you do not get our benefits." So also does the media's sound bite culture, and Mr. Dionne just delivered one of the penalties. Any time a politician tries to get around the regulations of the sound bite, he is simply cut off. Any time a politician tries to clarify his position later on, his intentions are questioned. The latter is what happened to Mr. Obama, who sadly could not convey his point in 60 seconds. He needed time later on to amplify it. And so, he is castigated as a back-tracker who is changing his tune to maximize his share of the vote.

What's the message to Obama here? The message is: learn how to do the sound bite thing better. Comply or face penalty.

Media elites like to kvetch about how our politicians are not doing what they should be doing. Here's a question for them. My intuition is that Barack Obama is going to spend extra time in debate prep so he can learn how to give a sound bite better. That way, he does not have media elites telling voters in so many words that he is a crassly self-interested backtracker. In other words, he does not want to face further criticism, so he is going to try to comply with this culture. How is learning to follow the media's narrowly self-interested rules on sound bites a good use of the time of Barack Obama, a senator to 13 million people and potentially the 44th President?

If media elites are so chagrined by how politicians do not focus on the "people's business," maybe they should think about the role they have played in their own disappointments.

-Jay Cost

On the Objectivity of the Press

Regular readers know that I am less than satisfied with our political press. One particular problem I have is its claim of objectivity. The press is not objective. What's more, it offers disguises to conceal its lack of objectivity. Sometimes these disguises are quite poor; when they are, we can see press bias for what it is.

Let me say at the outset that what follows is not a typical, the press-is-a-biased-shill-for-the-GOP story, or the-press-is-a-biased-shill-for-the-Democrats story. I am going to remain agnostic on the issue of ideological bias.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes "objective" in several ways, the most relevant of which is:

Of a person or their judgement: not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts; impartial, detached.
Philosophically, I do not think this quality is attainable. It is naïve to believe that anybody can be wholly free from the influence of personal feelings. I would agree that one can achieve functional objectivity - in which one is still influenced by one's personal situation, but possesses a measure of detachment.

The press is not objective, even in this relatively limited sense. It has its own set of private interests. News stories reflect its attempts to maximize these interests. This implies an absence of objectivity in the sense that I have defined it.

Political activists on both sides accuse the press of ideological bias. In many instances, these critiques frame the question of bias in ways that cause us to miss it in its other forms. After all, left-right ideology is only a single dimension of American political life. It is surely not the case that all interests can be represented on a single dimension. If we put aside the question of ideological bias, we can go on to ask if there are any private interests that the press has, and whether those interests are reflected in its "objective" work.

Like any professional group, the press has an interest in maximizing revenue and minimizing costs. This induces many different biases. For instance, the press has an interest in, and therefore a bias toward, conflict. The public is attracted to conflict, so the press focuses on it excessively. It also has a bias in activity, change, dynamism, whatever you want to call it. Things must be "happening" in a press story because this attracts the attention of the public. It has a bias toward stories with good visuals because the public is attracted to them. As for minimizing costs, the press faces space and time constraints. This induces a bias toward the simple over the complicated, the straightforward over the subtle, consensus of opinion over diversity. Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar has argued that the press evinces a bias toward "episodic" framing rather than "thematic" framing. That is, its news stories tend not to place events in their broader contexts, focusing instead on a particular, isolated event. One can appreciate how episodic framing maximizes conflict and dynamism while minimizing the time or space needed to convey it.

Generally, the press has a set of preferences just as any professional group does. Like any group, these interests are narrow in that they are not the interests of the public at large. Just because they do not "fit" on a left-right "line" does not mean that they do not exist.

Personally, none of this upsets me. Private interests are inevitable in all professions. What I object to is that today's press consistently claims that this interestedness does not exist. The claim of objectivity implies exactly this - that the member of the press who has crafted the story is not present in the story, has no interest in what the story ultimately argues, and is reporting matters "as they are." This is not the case, and so I find that the press often makes use of rhetorical disguises to hide the interests it has in a particular story. Sometimes, the disguise of objectivity can be fairly thin. When it is, we can see clearly the motivation of the press in the story.

One of the thinnest disguises I have seen in a long while came in Wednesday's edition of Politico.com - in an article by Kenneth Vogel entitled "Rivals try to deflate F. Thompson's campaign." The entire article should be read for the whole drift to sink in, but I will just quote the first few paragraphs.

Fred Thompson has had a relatively easy ride as he has flirted with a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. His strategists have found traction promoting him as the heir to Ronald Reagan -- and a conservative alternative to the top tier of the GOP field.

But the ride is starting to get a bit bumpy.

Opponents and their researchers have begun working -- mostly behind the scenes -- to highlight perceived soft spots in his conservative bona fides.

And Thompson will have to neutralize questions on the campaign trail and in the media about his centrist votes in the Senate, his stances on litmus test conservative issues including abortion and -- perhaps most significantly -- his work as a lawyer and lobbyist.

Thompson's biggest challenge will likely be cementing his image as a conservative country lawyer fixin' to shake up Washington -- before his opponents brand him as an influence peddler and trial lawyer.

As you read the article, you realize that, in fact, Mr. Thompson's political opponents are not trying to "deflate" Fred Thompson's campaign at all. There is not a single political opponent, or advisor of an opponent, quoted. In fact, the only person quoted is Thompson spokesman Mark Corallo. And so, the article is actually a story of conflict between Thompson and the Politico! The reference to rivals is simply a rhetorical trick to place the attacks in the mouths of others. The fact is that the Politico authored a piece that offered a litany of reasons why Fred Thompson is no good for conservatives, and then allowed Thomspon to respond to each of them. It created a conflict where - at least for now - it does not exist.

What frustrates me here is not that the Politico decided to go after Fred Thompson. Even though the immediate motivation for the piece was presumably narrow, it serves a broader, more noble purpose: Thompson should be thoroughly vetted, just as all of the top tier presidential candidates should be. What frustrates me is the thin disguise that hides the interests of the author. It insults the reader's intelligence. I would not expect the Politico - or any outlet - to go out of its way to declare its personal interests in the story. To frame the story in a way that implies that it is not the Politico's interests that motivates it, but rather the interests of other candidates upon which the Politico is simply reporting, is aggravating to me.

Generally, these sorts of disguises serve as attempts by the press to obscure the fact that it wields significant political power. The press claims merely to be observing, objectively reporting what is happening without interference or participation in the process. But because this is not the case, the press exercises political power.

What political power does the press exercise? It is the same power I have discussed all week, the power to set the agenda. The press exercises power over all of us by influencing us on what subjects we will, and will not, consider; and how we will, and will not, consider them. They do not influence what we believe per se. But they do influence what we are thinking about, and also the way in which we frame current events. This is one reason why conservatives and liberals blast seemingly liberal or conservative newspapers for ignoring certain stories and promoting others, for framing issues in one way and not another way. This is a reaction to the press' role to set the agenda.

We can see in this Politico column the power of the press. Because the press has the ability to decide what we shall and shall not discuss, and because it has an interest in conflict - we are discussing whether Fred Thompson's political record conflicts with the policy preferences of the GOP base.

-Jay Cost

The Newsweek School of Presidential Psychology

This is merely impressionistic, but it seems to me that the writers over at Newsweek really enjoy psycho-analyzing President Bush. The latest comes from Howard Fineman.

Though I've never heard him use the term, my guess is that George W. Bush sees himself as a hacendado, an estate owner in Old Mexico.

That would give him a sense of Southwestern noblesse, duty-bound not just to work "his" people, but to protect them as well.

His advisor, Carlo Rove, has explained that a system called "democracy" now gives peasants something called "the vote." It would be shrewd, Rove said, for hacendados to grant their workers' citizenship.

That's the best explanation I have for why Bush is in the midst of what may be a suicide mission on immigration policy--embarrassing for him and ruinous for his party.

This reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in Arrested Development. Lucille and Oscar are arguing over whether Buster is going to be shipped off to Iraq. Lucille shouts, "You're high!" Oscar responds, "Well - you can win every argument that way, but that doesn't make you right!"

I feel vaguely the same way about Fineman's piece. What good does this kind of armchair psychoanalysis do us? What have we learned from this, beyond what Howard Fineman thinks? Fineman is not - so far as I know - a professionally trained mental health worker. Nor, for that matter, does he have the kind of access to the President to make such psychoanalytic judgments. It makes for good rhetoric - but really, does an assertion like this explicate, clarify, or elucidate anything at all? If not, why is this worth our while?

Amateur psychoanalytical argument is, I think, the second worst explanation for human behavior. If you are a professional mental health worker, then it is a different story. But if you are not, it is just a weak basis for inference. The weakest is, of course, recourse to ill intentions. Q: Why did he do something that puzzles you? A: He is evil. That is the weakest answer I think you can give. The second weakest answer is essentially what Fineman argues. A: He is crazy.

You can win any argument by using either of these answers. But, really, how much do you actually explain?

-Jay Cost

More of the Same

In response to his self-righteous screed today in the WaPo, I have a question for Dan Balz: just what country does he think he lives in?

Mr. Balz writes:

The collapse of comprehensive immigration revision in the Senate last night represents a political defeat for President Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the bill's most prominent sponsors. More significantly, it represents a scathing indictment of the political culture of Washington.

The defeat of the legislation can be laid at the doorstep of opponents on the right and left, on congressional leaders who couldn't move their troops and on an increasingly weakened president and his White House team. But together it added up to another example of a polarized political system in which the center could not hold.

The partisan blame game was already at fever pitch as the bill was going down yesterday. But to those far removed from the backrooms of Capitol Hill, what happened will fuel cynicism toward a political system that appears incapable of finding ways to resolve the nation's big challenges.

This is exactly the type of ignorance against which I argued this morning. How is it that somebody who has spent so many years in Washington can write with such shock and disappointment about the defeat of the bill?

Ugh. Where to begin?

Let's start with this "center failing to hold" nonsense. That's as good a place as any. Our system has a super-majority requirement built into it. The "center" never "holds" - if by "center" you mean the middle 33% of the legislature, and by "holds" you mean imposes its legislative preferences on the other 67%. That is not how our system works. Legislation passes if and only if a large majority of legislators supports it.

And, more broadly, what kind of nonsense is it to blame the failure on our "political culture?" This is exactly what I meant when I wrote that we occasionally are overtaken with a strange kind of solipsism. Implicit in Balz's argument is the absurd assertion that this problem is unique to us today. For goodness sake! Supporters of Andrew Jackson accused John Quincy Adams of procuring an underage American prostitute for the Czar of Russia!

And it is indeed ironic that Balz should predict more cynicism. Maybe, just maybe, the public is made more cynical because media elites who have the power to communicate with them fail to understand how our system works, and thus unfairly compare it to an impracticable ideal. Maybe, just maybe, if Balz et al. would write, "Once again our system worked. A sizeable minority strongly opposed this bill, and our system does not pass legislation that alienates so many of our fellow citizens. This is reason to celebrate because this is why, after 200 years, we still have a healthy, fully functioning Republic!" the public would not be made to be more cynical.

So, I'll ask again: just where does Dan Balz think he is? This is America. Our system was intentionally designed to prevent divisive legislative from becoming law. If Mr. Balz wishes to live in a government that demonstrates a capacity for coherent, programmatic, "responsible" legislative activity, over and above the objections of the minority, there are flights to Heathrow every day from both Dulles and Ronald Reagan (or are Washingtonians still calling it Washington National?). Otherwise, he needs to deal with the fact that the "user's manual" to our Constitution is called The Federalist Papers.

And, of course, we cannot have a "the system failed us again" story without reference to the following absurd idea.

The collective failure of the two parties already appears to have stimulated interest in a third-party candidate for president in 2008 whose main promise would be to make Washington work. It is far too early to assess the viability of such a candidate, but it is easy to imagine the immigration impasse finding its way into a television commercial if someone such as New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg decides to run.

Ahhh...yes. This is precisely what we need in Washington. Our two parties cannot get along, so let us bring in a third party! This makes perfect sense. The problem is of course that our political representatives are...too political! Somehow, bringing in a new politician, one who would have no natural allies in Congress, would solve all of our problems! I am sure such a man would be able to force his political opponents to do as he wishes!

What we have here, buried deep within the premise of this story, is a fallacy of composition that our media outlets have made. Just because Mr. Balz knows all about the minute-to-minute events of our government does not mean he understands how our government as a whole operates. He obviously does not.

This fallacy of composition is precisely what justifies our media's burgeoning cadre of "wise elders," the journalist-turned-pundit class that has had bestowed upon it "expert" status by editors and producers. Journalists who cover the day-to-day of American politics have been improperly certified as experts on how our system works, have been rechristened as "pundits," and have been empowered not only to report the news, but to explain its broader significance to us. There is an inferential error at the core of this certification, which is why so many of our political talk shows, which rely increasingly upon said "experts," are little more than forty-two minute collections of the mindless platitudes that these people - who are, in reality, out of their depths - offer.

Thank goodness it's Friday!

-Jay Cost

Mr. Madison Votes Nay

In the wake of the immigration reform bill's defeat, I'd like to make a comment about journalists/pundits analyses of government. I find that, in subtle ways, their misunderstanding of the structure of our politics undermines public confidence in our system. Pundits, and the citizens who listen to them, are far too quick to label legislative defeats - like that which occurred with immigration reform - as "failures," when in fact they are a consequence of a political system that has held us in good stead for quite a long while.

Continue reading "Mr. Madison Votes Nay" »