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Chris Lehmann is a senior editor at CQ and a co-editor at Bookforum. He was formerly a columnist of the New York Observer and deputy editor of Washington Post Book World. I recently asked him six questions about media coverage of the presidential campaign. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
1. I’ve seen many recent headlines about the alleged “feverish speculation” about who the vice presidential nominees are going to be. Is the public really all that interested in these sorts of campaign issues at this point, or is the fever largely confined to the media?
The reporters and editors who are composing these inane pieces are pretty much talking to each other. I saw a Washington Post headline the other day, “Who’s No. 2? Obama Keeps Everybody Guessing.” No – the “everybody” in that construction is you. Imagine if you were covering the baseball playoffs and you wrote that there was massive speculation about who was going to win. It’s manifestly moronic because you’re writing about a scheduled event that is going to take place on a known timeline. You’re contributing nothing. It’s the opposite of news; any useful public information is entirely missing. But that’s the way the press bubble operates. Not only do reporters write about what they’re talking about, but they’re writing about each other. Notice the passive construction in these stories about “rampant speculation” and ask yourself, “Who’s doing the speculating?” It’s the reporters who are; most voters, being sane people, might think about it for a second but then they move on to the next thing in their day.
2. There’s currently a lot of discussion in the media about the conventions and who’s going to get a bounce from them, whether Obama or McCain. Is this at all relevant to the question of who is going to win in November?
No, unless you believe that political campaigns have a platonic existence completely outside of reality. It’s the same thing with all the discussion about who won the Saddleback debate. The only important issue about Saddleback is that the Constitution specifically forbids any religious test for office, so why are you having an evangelical minister asking the two candidates about their relationship to Christ? But the people who are in charge of delivering useful information to the public about the process have no historical frame of reference. They literally don’t know what they’re doing.
3. Why does the press cover this stuff so intently?
I have friends who have elaborate conspiracy theories about the coverage, and how the media is leaning one way or the other. In my darker moments I find myself wishing the press were cunning enough to do that. But it’s more like sports journalism or, to use that tired cliché, the horse race mentality. If you’re a cable news director, you’re just not going to devote ten minutes to a major address about the subprime crisis, but if John Edwards confesses to an extramarital affair, even though he’s not even a candidate and holds no public office, it will lead to an orgy of coverage. Market share dictates the witless coverage, which is largely for the media’s own amusement. You see that all the time on the Sunday political chat shows, which are always about the polls and who is performing better in strategic terms. The only constituency that cares about that is the media. I have family around the country and we always talk politics, and no one ever asks me, “How did Obama perform on his European tour?” It’s an asinine question.
4. Is anything going on now to which I should be paying attention? Is there anything happening that’s relevant?
The debates between the candidates could be important, but the conventions are stultifying media spectacles where no one expects anything to happen. The reason so much political coverage on cable is crap is that there is an effort to portray the campaign as this floating spectacle; it’s devoid of public interest. Not to be too conspiratorial, but there is an economic interest at stake because you want people to come back and watch the same drivel the next day, in the same way that I obsessively check the sports section to see how the Cubs did. That’s why the VP speculation is so perfect for cable; you can fill up all that airtime without any reporting. There are studies of the content of cable news that show that something shy of 10 percent of the coverage is original reporting. They’re constantly re-running the one time they got some hapless anchor to stand in front of a hurricane, or it’s just incessant talking head speculation.
The best source of information is the print media, though it is increasingly mimicking the structure of TV coverage. Online reporting doesn’t help much. It’s real-time coverage so you not only get who won the day, but ideologically interested people are steering things in one direction or the other.
5. What narratives has the media created during the current campaign?
First of all the media wants it to be as close of a race as possible. New York magazine recently had an idiotic cover story on race and the election, saying that everything was trending Democratic so why wasn’t Obama up by 10 or 15 percent? All sorts of other stories have asked the same question. The problem with that analysis is that it’s August and no one but the press has such an intense interest in the campaign at this stage. Historically this has not been a time when a presidential candidate pulls away, and even if someone does it will be meaningless because it’s August. You could call that type of reporting irresponsible but that connotes a level of intelligence to the coverage that isn’t there. The narrative with McCain is the flip side of this–what can he do to derail the Obama juggernaut? Never mind that these narratives are contradictory. Obama is vulnerable in the one instance, but in the other, he’s evidently unstoppable. Logic just doesn’t count in these things.
The other McCain narrative is that he has not pleased the various Republican interest groups enough and it’s generally a bad year for Republicans–so how can he seize the initiative? This is where the media’s love affair with McCain kicks in, and he becomes a maverick and bipartisan and is winning over independent voters. Those narratives will gather momentum until the next thing happens. So when Obama picks his vice president there’ll be a lot of discussion about: will it give him a bounce; and will his pick address geographical issues; and will it shore up his foreign policy credentials; and blah blah blah.
6. But don’t these narratives sometime become self-fulfilling prophecies?
Yes, and the distressing proof text of that argument is the 2000 election. It’s not a stretch to say that the media largely defeated Al Gore. They burrowed in with these idiotic memes about him being uncomfortable in his own skin and about his claiming to have invented the Internet and Naomi Wolf advising him on how to be a he-man. Most of it wasn’t even true, but that didn’t matter because the press is so invested in its own narrative that it all becomes self-fulfilling; these things are repeated like mantras. In the same way, it never seems to matter that John McCain is the wealthier candidate and represents economic interests that are in many ways aristocratic; it’s always Barack Obama who is the “elitist.”
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Winner of the 2012 Olivier Rebbot Award for best photographic reporting from abroad in magazines or books