Journalism 101: Centrism Not Does Equal Objectivity

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Too Much of This Coverage
One of the more lamentable features of national political coverage is that journalists emphasize conflict and "horse race" coverage rather than policy. This is because many journalists -- e.g., David Gregory, George Stephanopolous, Major Garrett and many lesser known names that make up the D.C. press corp -- consider themselves political wonks as opposed to policy wonks. They feel comfortable passing on campaign strategies, tactics, polls, photo ops, spin & c., often with a world-weary, knowing "this is all a game" attitude, because this is their bailiwick -- the political game.

One of the consequences of this, however, is journalists' fallback stance that when it comes to policy, whatever the centrist position is, turns out to be the "best" or most objective policy/position. It's not hard to see why journalism manifests itself in this way: when one views politics simply as a game between donkeys and elephants jockeying for power, the middle way can appear to be the best or right answer. This is also why many journalists praise those politicians who break the partisan mold; see the feting of John McCain in 2000 on his StraightTalk Express. He's telling it like it is! No spin! So, because they are either ill-trained or uninterested, the media will default into a GOP said/Democrat said form of story, or a pox on both their houses type column that David Broder was and Tom Friedman is (in?)famous for. Friedman has written the political column version of "Waiting for Godot" -- we need a centrist candidate -- so many times it's almost laughable.

Almost. This kind of journalism promotes centrism as the objectively best policy outcome. But this cannot be true. First, while neither the Democrats nor Republicans have the hold on the truth, it is a false equivalence to say the center holds. Consider for example, that political scientists have shown that Republicans have moved further to the right over the past thirty years than Democrats have to the left. This necessarily means that the political "center" has moved to the right. But rarely do you hear this fact mentioned by journalists in their he said/she said reporting.

The false equivalence fallacy rears its ugly head most often in budget or economic debates between the parties. Everyone knows that the Democrats are pro-choice and the Republicans are pro-life, so journalists do not have work hard to "know" abortion politics/policy. However, most journalists are out of their wheelhouse when it comes to economic and budgetary matters, so they revert to what they know: politics, not policy.

Did you know, for example, that most economists believe that the top marginal tax rate could be as much higher than it is now and not retard economic growth? Probably not, if your media diet comes from the mainstream media. Instead, when Obama wanted to raise the marginal tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent we got "horse race" coverage: who was "winning" the battle over taxes rather than an analysis of the best tax policy.

Do we deserve better? Maybe, maybe not. Studies have shown that people gravitate toward the conflict/horse race stories when given a chance to choose between that or their vegetables (policy coverage). But if you want policy coverage, turn off the TV and read your news. You might find that carrots aren't so bad after all.

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