by Doctor Science
Or, Why is an election 4 months away more newsworthy than a crisis right now?
My parents, who live in Connecticut, recently got back from a trip to the Midwest for a family reunion. They left on Thursday, June 29, and came back on Tuesday July 3. This past Friday my mother called a cousin who lives near Gaithersburg, Maryland, to tell her about the reunion, since she hadn't been able to make it. Mom was shocked to learn that her cousin had been without power for five or six days, after a huge windstorm on June 30th.
My parents were especially shocked because they had no idea -- they had heard nothing about this outage from the news. Admittedly, while they're traveling their access to news is a bit haphazard, and depends mostly on what other people choose to have on TV, but they would have expected the travails of people in the DC area to be considered significant enough to make it onto screens.
Instead, all they happened to see were heads talking about the Presidential election, the Supreme Court Obamacare decision, and the effect of the Supreme Court decision on the election. To quote my Mom, "election blah blah blah."
I was quite aware of the storm and power outage because I e-know a fair number of people in the greater DC area who were posting about their powerless adventures. Most of my knowledge, though, came from James Fallows, who's written a great series of posts about the storm and what this tells us about the state of the US infrastructure:
- American Infrastructure Report: D.C. Storm Edition
- Let's Talk Infrastructure (and Extreme Weather, and Pepco)
- What We Learn When the Lights Go Out, #1
- What We Learn With the Lights Out, #2
- Another Way of Looking at the Blackouts
- Heard of the 'Great Northeast Blackout?'
- Let's Talk Infrastructure! Reports From Brooklyn, Berkeley, and Kentucky
How can it be that in the imperial-capital city of the richest nation the world has ever seen, people are told that it will probably be a full week before electric power is restored? For the second widespread multi-day outage in the past two years.So why on earth would TV news not cover the story? Lots of human interest stories to be dug up, and you can intersperse them with Very Serious People talking about infrastructure spending and how it does -- or doesn't -- Create Jobs.
This is in a neighborhood less than four miles from the White House. America's motto is supposed to be resilience. Here's a reminder of the brittleness of crucial parts of our infrastructure. No doubt we would draw unflattering conclusions if we saw this happening in some other world capital.
The Presidential Election, on the other hands, is months away, and nothing is actually happening right now, in the sense of "advancing the plot". What makes it so very fascinating, so worth hours of precious cable news time? OK, that's a joke, but even so ... how can this make sense?
I've come up with an explanation, and it's pretty damn cynical, even for me.
This Presidential campaign is going to break all records for spending. Between the campaigns themselves, the parties, the PACs and Super-PACs, it'll be at least $1.5B and probably closer to $2B. The Koch brothers and their associates alone are planning to spend nearly $400 million, part of a $1BILLION GOP Super-Pac drive. Thanks to Citizens United, the money will be *crazy*.
And it will mostly end up in the pockets of the TV industry. Back in March, Kirsten Salyer at Bloomberg reported that:
Spending on political advertising in 2012 is expected to reach $2.6 billion, 45 percent higher than in 2008, according to a Jan. 31 report by Barclays Capital analyst Anthony DiClemente. "To the extent races are close, we're going to see a lot of media dollars, more than any in history, flow into this election," says DiClemente. Local TV stations, expected to receive about 85 percent of total political ad spending from campaigns and super-PACs, will be the biggest beneficiaries, with CBS and News Corp. likely to benefit the most, DiClemente says.Note To the extent races are close. The closer the race, the more money the TV industry ends up getting. Therefore, there's a direct monetary incentive for TV news to make the election season as long as possible, and to make the race seem as tight as possible. (The best coverage of campaign spending is at Open Secrets.)
Jay Rosen attributes Horse-Race Journalism -- where election coverage focuses on "who will win?", not on "what do they stand for and what will they do if elected" -- to laziness and insecurity:
Who's-gonna-win is portable, reusable from cycle to cycle, and easily learned by newcomers to the press pack. Journalists believe it brings readers to the page and eyeballs to the screen. It "works" regardless of who the candidates are, or where the nation is in historical time. No expertise is actually needed to operate it. In that sense, it is economical. (And when everyone gets the winner wrong the "surprise" becomes a good story for a few days.) Who's going to win -- and what's their strategy -- plays well on television, because it generates an endless series of puzzles toward which journalists can gesture as they display their savviness, which is the unofficial religion of the mainstream press.I would never want to downplay the importance of laziness and insecurity in explaining human behavior, but I think Rosen overlooks the fact that the press -- or at least the TV industry -- makes money *directly* from the horse race. A long, anxious election season is *literal* gold for them.
But the biggest advantage of horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to "play up their detachment." Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because "who's gonna win?" is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists.
Frankly, this is the only reason I can think of for news organizations to be focusing obsessively on a topic that is just not that interesting, with the same old heads talking over and over and OVER, when a dramatic human interest story is happening in their own neighborhood. And that's leaving aside the way that the dramatic story of the storm and the power loss could be interspersed with important but less plotty stories about infrastructure or climate change.
Direct YouTube link.