Election Coverage: The Seduction of Style

I heard a fascinating clip today from Left, Right and Center. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this show, the self-proclaimed "civilized yet provocative antidote to the screaming talking heads that dominate political debate." On the one hand, they have a panel of incredibly articulate and highly respected journalists, and make a sincere effort to examine political issues from a variety of viewpoints, in a unique format. On the other hand… the show often succumbs to the seductive siren call of scandals and style, at the expense of substance, and frequently fails to truly commit to dialogical discussion, lapsing instead into the patterns of the very "screaming talking heads" they try to distinguish themselves from.

These flaws have been increasingly present, in particular, during this seemingly endless election "season" as, like journalists across the country, Left, Right and Center (LRC) has been more interested in John Edwards’ haircut, Rudy Giuliani’s marriage, and "horse race" analysis than in the issues themselves.

Well, in this week’s episode of LRC, Bob Scheer (of TruthDig.com) called them all out, although somewhat indirectly. (If you care to listen, the good stuff starts around minute 11 and continues through minute 22.)

It began when Matt Miller asked Scheer to comment on Mike Huckabee’s charming performance in this week’s Republican YouTube debate. Scheer’s response was pretty clear:

"I don’t care! … I don’t trust it. I don’t trust it from the Democrats and I don’t trust it from the Republicans. I think these people are playing a game… they’re positioning themselves, they’re not taking positions. It’s a phony act, it’s a betrayal of democracy, and why dignify it by pretending [there's] some real debate?"

Scheer initially seemed to come down hard on the candidates themselves, and Tony Blankley (Washington Times) came to the candidates’ defense, shifting the blame to journalists themselves. Here’s Blankley, referring to his media breakfast with Huckabee the following day:

"Of all the questions that were asked of Huckabee… I was the only one that asked a substantive policy question… it’s very hard if you’re a candidate for president to ever start up and carry on a substantive discussion with American journalists, because all they want to cover is the competition and the scandal and the horserace, and I found it rather embarrassing to see what journalists will do in a situatation like that."

Scheer’s response? "I totally agree … it’s outrageous that the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal do not cover substance, it’s ridiculous." Although he didn’t quite say it, I sensed the implicit suggestion from Scheer that he sees LRC as guilty of the same outrage.

What happened next was almost comical. Matt Miller, completely failing to hear what his two colleagues were saying, simply returned immediately to his initial topic of Mike Huckabee’s charming persona, including his gimicky ad with Chuck Norris (which, I have to admit, is pretty damn brilliant). Blankley seemed a bit flustered by Miller’s aloof demeaner, but played along anyway. Scheer, however, wanted nothing to do with it.

"Is this guy [Huckabee] going to be good? Is he going to get us into wars? Is he going to help the poor? What’s his position on the recession we seem to be going into? Again, the temptation is to discuss style and not substance… what are his positions?"

Finally, on this third try, it seemed to stick, and both Miller and Blankley went into a fair amount of detail about their perceptions of Huckabee’s policy positions. I won’t go into the details, because they’re a bit tangential to my point here, about journalism.

My question: Why was it so hard, in what ought to be an environment conducive to substantive discussion, for that discussion to come about? Several reasons come to mind.

First, style is easy. It’s fun to talk about the race, it’s fun and easy to speculate about the election, and, as Scheer says, there’s a temptaion to discuss style.

Second, substance is hard. After listening to the clip three or four times, I almost cringe at the end, as Miller couches his statements about Huckabee in apologetics: "I guess… my impression… I don’t know the full answer…" It’s a lot harder to understand and articulate the subtleties of a candidate’s position than to comment on his charming personality.

Third, habits are sticky. Even on the radio (or iPod, rather), I could feel the discomfort at key moments, as Scheer challenged his colleagues to raise their standards. They simply weren’t prepared to focus strictly on policy issues, or even comfortable doing so.

So now what? Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure. If even the most issue-oriented members of our media have to struggle with their peers to discuss the issues head-on, perhaps they’re fighting a losing battle. Certainly, alternative media outlets are one option, and I know I’ll be reserving space for TruthDig’s RSS feed in my Google Reader.

What else? How do you gather issue-oriented campaign news? How do you get past all the "horse race" nonsense? I’m dying to know.

Brad Weikel

Brad Weikel received his MA in Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) from Georgetown University in 2009. His thesis, "From Coding to Community: Iteration, Abstraction, and Open Source Software Development" argued that programming practices, particularly iterative workflows and abstraction models, can help explain both the success and struggles of open source software. His work was a technocentric complement to prior explanations from economists, lawyers, and political and cultural theorists. While writing his thesis, Brad blogged about his topic at OpenCulture.cc, where he has since continued blogging, more broudly, about collaborative production and the commons at large. Brad was Managing Editor of gnovis during the 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 school years, and Creative Director in 2006/2007. He is currently the Web & Communications Coordinator for EarthRights International.