Newsweek: In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb

We were pleased to see Newsweek devote an online article to taking a critical look at the news media’s campaign coverage. Unfortunately, the magazine assigned the task to economic columnist and pundit Robert Samuelson, whose assessment never comes to grips with how the press falls short.

Samuelson makes several major points. First, the media are overly respectful of bogus campaign rhetoric. For instance, he argues, reporters take at face value the candidates’ plans to create jobs, instead of pointing out that, in reality, job growth depends mainly on the business cycle, not on who’s in the White House. On tax cuts, too, the media take the presidential candidates’ positions seriously, even though neither of their tax plans is certain to get through Congress. We also learn (irrelevantly) that Samuelson doesn’t think much of Kerry’s tax cut proposals.

Samuelson’s point about the jobs debate is fair enough, as far as it goes. The media should indeed treat promises to create jobs with more skepticism. But his contention that the candidates’ positions on taxes are mere “campaign slogans” that will have no significant effect on actual government policy is way off the mark.

In the 2000 campaign, George Bush promised massive tax cuts — and that’s what we got. This time around, whatever happens in Congress, it’s certain that a Bush victory would mean more (or extended) tax cuts, tilted towards higher income brackets, than would a Kerry victory. After all, in 2000, Bush promoted his tax cuts as the natural response to a budget surplus. Shortly after taking office, faced with a sluggish economy and rising unemployment, Bush argued that the cuts were necessary to boost spending. He’s already shown that by adopting a new rationale he can stick with the same policy — and sell it to Congress — even when external conditions change. Who’s to say, then, that he wouldn’t be able to do the same thing in a second term?

Samuelson’s next major contention is that the media pretend that the candidates are covering the big issues, when, in fact, some topics that Samuelson thinks are important, such as immigration, China, and the future of Social Security, are ignored because they’re not vote-winners for either side. True enough — though it’s hard to know how Samuelson settled on those three. Yes, reporters should do a better job of raising the difficult, long-term issues that the campaigns want to avoid. But is a lack of attention to immigration really the most serious problem with the news media’s coverage of the campaign?

In all this, Samuelson — perhaps because he himself is not a reporter — fails to consider the actual dynamics of the way campaign reporters do their job. As Campaign Desk and others have pointed out, reporters — terrified of being accused of bias — too often render the daily back-and-forth of the campaign as little more than “he said/she said,” failing to note evidence that might give readers at least some idea of which side has the more valid argument. In another everyday sin, as we and others have shown, once the working campaign press settles on a storyline, it will bend over backwards to stick to it. That’s because abandoning one storyline requires thinking through and creating another — which, frankly, is hard work.

Samuelson hasn’t noticed: His fly-over view — he manages to write an entire column on campaign coverage without citing a single specific campaign news story — never stops to zero in on the fallacies reporters fall prey to, fallacies less of fact than of framing.

Finally, Samuelson decides that none of this really matters much anyway. “I doubt we can do much better,” he writes. “In a democracy, people are entitled to their delusions … Probably this is the best democracy can do: a common-sense judgment culled from much exaggeration, simplification and distortion.”

It’s nice to know that what passes for media criticism in a major newsweekly consists of throwing up your hands and declaring it a lost cause.

I guess we can all go home now.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.