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Where Have All The Issues Gone?

A recent Pew center report helps make a case against the type of media interventionism Noam described last week. It notes the quantity of media coverage, positive and negative, that major candidates for party nominations received during this election cycle. Pew found that

"Democrat Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, enjoyed by far the most positive treatment of the major candidates during the first five months of the year--followed closely by Fred Thompson, the actor who at the time was only considering running. Arizona Senator John McCain received the most negative coverage--much worse than his main GOP rivals."

This analysis suggests a bias with an observable impact on the race--buoying Obama's campaign through the summer, changing McCain missteps into hard political currency, and allowing Thompson to enter the race polling even with candidates who had been stumping on the issues for months longer.

Further, the study also points out the dangerous disconnect between image and substance perpetuated in campaign reporting. The media has explicitly promoted news stories oriented around strategy rather than those dealing with policy. The lopsided focus is clear. 

Boooo. Who knew it had gotten so bad? This decreased focus on issues takes a serious toll on democratic process. The example of Giuliani, for one, is particularly telling--GOP primary voters are still befuddled on his views on social issues, and Giuliani's misleading, if not plain wrong statements on healthcare have been buried under process stories that promote "news" such as his campaign's 'surge' in New Hampshire. 

Pew also reports that these machinations are precisely what the public wants least. Nearly 80 percent of the public would prefer simpler presentation of the candidates, unadorned, side-by-side, on the issues. Not an outrageous wish--this is America's famed democracy, after all--but in the race for grand narratives of this campaign season, punditry trumps reporting almost two-thirds of the time.

I can't help but feel this shift of priorities--from objective, heads-up analysis of candidates' views, to a battle of image and relative positioning--only allows manipulation of the latter, and is certainly bad for democracy. In 2004, we saw Bush float and Kerry tank based on the climate that privileged surface-skimming coverage. This year seems no different--though the traffic in vapors has the everyman quite disgruntled.

--Dayo Olopade