Rally Killer

Political reporters shouldn’t take out their election fatigue on the voters

Contrasting Obama rallies that “often look like Benetton-colored billboards” with McCain events characterized by pompoms and flag pins, The New York Times’s Mark Leibovich argues on today’s front page that these rallies are snapshots of two Americas. “What can we learn from a close-in view of Democratic and Republican events at the end of a bitter, exhilarating campaign?” he asks rhetorically. “It has become a cliché to say that the country is ‘divided,’ but the anthropologies displayed at 11 campaign stops in recent days offer glimpses of partisan America.”

If the Times feels obliged to acknowledge its reporting trades in clichés, maybe it should ask whether it is making the best use of its front page five days before a presidential election. Leibovich’s story is color in search of substance. It is essentially a list of generalizations about the crowds’ temperaments, slogans, and sartorial selections, including neither polling information to put these details into a larger context, nor substantive discussions with individual rally-goers that might deepen insight to an individual partisan’s world view. And it is all filtered through a patronizing tone that conveys the reporter’s fatigue with endless rallies, rather than supporters’ excitement at being a part of this notable campaign.

There is no reason to question whether the rallies contain the details Leibovich describes. But there is plenty of reason to wonder whether presenting these details so broadly serves any purpose beyond allowing readers to feel secure in their stereotypes of the political camps. Political reporters and other media critics might argue that the Times’s excellent election stories have earned it the right to front a light feature as part of its comprehensive coverage. But I found this story hard to swallow this morning because I went to vote yesterday. I chatted with other busy people who were willing to sit for forty-five minutes in multiple waiting rooms in order to cast their ballots in a chaotic city office building. And I have never seen people more excited to vote. The registrars, who had been pulling twelve-hour days, were also exuberant.

It’s OK for political reporters to tire of a process that they have to watch in all its repetitive details. But voters are attending these events and visiting the polls in record numbers because this campaign has touched them personally in a way the political process rarely does. It’s odd that the Times chose to diminish this exuberance in a front page story five days before the election.

The opening paragraph set the story’s tone:

Supporters of Senators Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr. often look like Benetton-colored billboards, decked out for their candidates in Obama-Biden hats, T-shirts and buttons. Supporters of Senator John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin like logo merchandise, too, but tend more toward pompoms (yes, pompoms), homemade signs (“Pitbulls 4 Freedom”), flag pins and chest paint.

Leibovich does not get a whole lot more specific when it comes to actual political sentiments:

Democratic rallygoers seem more worried about Ms. Palin than about Mr. McCain. They speak of feeling weary of “the politics of fear” and claim Mr. McCain and Ms. Palin are “irrelevant” — unless they win, as one supporter in Charleston, W.Va., said with a smile-cringe….When you ask Republicans what they think of Mr. Obama, the word “socialist” comes up more often than not. They mention that he is a smooth talker, and not in a good way. A lot of them seem to have real problems with Michelle Obama, too, though they cannot pinpoint why. And they do not much care for that Joe Biden, either, or whatever his name is — many cannot immediately summon it.

As in these excerpts, the candidates’ partisans are referred to exclusively as “they” and “one supporter” until the sixteenth paragraph, when a protestor at a McCain event is named (and his quote appears in parentheses). The final paragraphs bring us three actual supporters, all Republicans, who appear to have absorbed undigested the campaign’s rhetoric about “Obama’s Socialist beliefs.”

Leibovich closes his story by commenting, “A lot of people at rallies for both camps say they are ready for this campaign to be over. But you kind of sense many of them don’t mean it.” Well, we certainly can figure out how the nation’s “paper of record” feels.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.