The Media Zone

How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

The Media Sham Series We Call Primary Coverage

Media feed viewers a diet of junk news of presidential candidates

Tuesday night we watched the end of the beginning as Democratic candidates touched history and variously claimed victory or refused to concede defeat. It was an exercise in processing joyful noise and strategizing stubbornness. Watching John McCain go after Barack Obama was an uncomfortable passage in what has become a series of uncomfortable moments of McCain's ill-advised sneering at his Fall opponent. Listening to McCain yet again challenge Obama to a series of ten Townhall-style debates, just mano a mano, was watching a newsreel of visible desperation that portends a replay of the Nixon-Kennedy debates.

There it was, available for the viewing, again and again, a trifecta of presidential aspirants in harsh-light close-ups, affording viewers a clutch of maybe-truths, snapshots of interior dramas, moments that television sires with such oily ease. And, in case you missed any of the night's repeats, the Internet was there in the morning to offer a truly astonishing array of dissectible, savorable, or gagable pictures at an exhibition of candidate electoral styles, anxieties and quest ends.

Whatever your candidate or political disposition, the media of these United States offers a buffet of tastes in this never-ending political year. You want elevating themes and images? You want to witness a brave woman refusing to back down, an unlikely African-American man making monumental history, or a spunky, gritty, tenacious septuagenarian throw down the gauntlet, it's there for the taking.

What's that you say? That's not your comfort zone. Show you Hillary, Hillary who has stayed too long at the fair of expected anointment, who bleats charges of sexism but ignores the irradiating effects of personality and behavior and keeps smiling and applauding at who knows who or what. We've got it for you.

But maybe you simply enjoy feeling your stomach recoil each time that Barack's smug smile and his annoying, slightly upturned profile frame his bloviating speeches. Charisma? Where? In whose eyes? Obama's an inexperienced upstart. It's not his time. It's hers, damn it. That narrative gets your juices flowing? We've got it on tap.

If the other side of the aisle is your cup of tea, we have the once-roguish, now ill-tempered, aged war hero whose heroics were founded on 5 tortuous years spent in a POW camp because he would not trade on his father's military status and betray his fellow prisoners. We'll show you the Shakespearian tragedy of ambition. We'll word-paint this fall from heroic grace 35 years later as Navy pilot John McCain betrays his brighter persona of political beliefs and calls upon his darker shadow to help him open the door to the Oval Office. You want that thumbnail sketch? That's there as well.

We know all this from the brew of media messages we've imbibed in for the past 15 months. Yet, do we really know the details of any of their positions on the issues beyond bumper sticker rhetoric? No. But not to worry. The media has convinced us it's enough to know our gut, know who opposed the war first, who called out Rumsfeld's follies first, who wears flag lapel pins, who opposes gay marriages, and who will or won't talk to our enemies. Why is that enough? Why ask why.

We can make whatever we want out of the smorgasbord of photos, film clips and talking and screaming heads the media sets out before us. We can easily reinforce existing biases and preferences. But can we see or taste something to change our minds or deepen our understanding of candidates to this quadrennial, national ritual? Or, is it all just a cyclorama of high tech Rorschachs, where truth is just interpretation and interpretation is merely a preference, a commodity that serves needs and wishes and we don't seek facts and rationales because they would just confuse us?

The main stream media, from which more than 70% get their news, give citizen-consumers what appears to be a feast of tastes, hors d'oeuvres of the personality and finger food political "insights" into the contending future leaders. From this catered affair, we think we know our candidates. Do we?

Week after week, month after month, the candidates speechify before a vast array of niche or constituent audiences. The media give us front row seats. We see too much and not enough. We see our candidate-warriors massaging messages to meet different audience sensibilities. We catch them repeating clever phrases, illustrations, anecdotes, stump stuff we were not meant to see repeated and wouldn't were it not for the new technologies and updated sensibilities and values. We think we learn important things.

All the while the media work their news-as-entertainment, politics-as-horse race game plans. They ignore substantive speeches and policy paper details because they might bore; or they dehydrate these Byzantine details into facile sound bites, only to then turn around, hand bite the food source and criticize candidates for commercing in buzz words, wedge words, or rhetorical, feel-good fluff.

Or the media go for the scandalizing and distracting. They obsessively deluge us with the sights and sounds of bit playing clergy throwing up cluster bombs of choleric phrases on YouTube videos, or during mischievous performances at National Press Clubs, or on politically biased TV news shows. From this gallery of horror we are led to think we know a vital truth of a candidate's fitness for office -- we are who supports us!

Do we? Are these vital? Are these truths? With all this media bread and circus, this raw life in video clips, do we now know enough about our candidates to make wise choices? Do we know their positions on important and complex issues, not just on wedge issues buttressed with inflammatory rhetoric?

Have the media messages we daily swallow made us more informed, or are we simply a nation of factoid-bloated, junk news junkies, an empty-caloried electorate that deludes itself into believing it has looked, listened, read, and understood?

Year after year surveys suggest that at the end of campaigns we are an electorate full of irrelevant information but starved of relevant facts.

But this year, this election, the hoopla of a new energy, a vitalized youth, a fierce urgency, the beginning of the end to racial and gender glass ceilings promises that this election cycle will be different. The media will be over-ruled. Substance will win.

I want to believe...

 

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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