Now that the marking period is over it's time to give the news media a grade on its coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign. Well, not a grade, exactly. Let's go alternative here and make it an "evaluation."
Once we look past coverage of "lipstick on a pig" and William Ayers and Joe the Plumber there were some promising signs.
Four years ago, I wrote an essay for this magazine about coverage of the 2004 campaign. My chief complaint: When Candidate A hurled an accusation at Candidate B, reporters would seek comment from a member of Candidate B's campaign staff, who would say something like, "Another flailing, baseless attack from Candidate A."
This, I wrote, was unhelpful. What voters really want to know is whether Candidate A's attack has any merit, not whether Candidate B's spokesperson thinks the attack has any merit. This seems obvious, yet standard journalistic practice has long been to seek balance and offer no judgments.
I recently heard a stark example of this kind of journalism. The Public Radio International program Living on Earth took up the subject of fire retardant drops from aircraft in the fight against Western wildfires. Source A said the chemical retardant was overused: It did little good in fighting wind-whipped fires, contaminated streams, and often functioned as little more than a public relations tool-a way of assuring the public that something was being done. Source B said the pink goop was an essential tool in the firefighter's tool box.
And that was that. I, Joe Listener, knowing next to nothing about fire science or riparian habitat, was no better informed than I was before. A says X; B says Y. You decide. The nice thing about this kind of reporting, I suppose, is that in the absence of unbiased research showing that A is more right than B or B is more right than A, I could believe whichever source I was predisposed to believe.
Thus do matters of fact become matters of opinion. Did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction or play a role in the 9/11 attacks? Was John Kerry a war hero? Is Barack Obama a Muslim? Is the earth getting warmer? Believe whatever you like.
I call this "trickle-down relativism." During the latter part of the 20th century, academics demolished the idea of the objective report. All stories, they argued, are told from the point of view of the narrator and must reflect that person's cultural, biological and experiential limitations. There is, therefore, no one "true" version of events, only many competing versions.
Such pronouncements were useful as warnings not to over-rely on any one account. The idea was to compare versions, factoring in each storyteller's biases. Somehow, though, the healthy skepticism of this approach to the reliability of texts and images has devolved into the unhealthy idea that no version is more or less valid than any other.
This is a dangerous state of affairs. Fortunately, I saw some improvements during the '08 campaign. Back in 2004, challenges to the candidates' assertions, when they were printed at all, usually appeared in sidebars or fact-check boxes. Not good enough, I wrote at the time. Unless the lies or distortions are exposed in the next paragraph, they may gain currency. That is why I was happy to see paragraphs like this one in the Washington Post last fall:
"If my opponent had his way, the millions of Floridians who rely on it would've had their Social Security tied up in the stock market this week," Obama said Saturday in Daytona Beach, Fla.
But fact-checkers from The Washington Post and the website factcheck.org deemed the attack misleading, noting the plan McCain supported-proposed by President Bush in 2005-would have applied to those born after 1950, and thus affected future retirees, not many current ones.
Or this one in the Los Angeles Times:
[McCain] said that Obama had once called the subprime loans that have fueled the housing foreclosure crisis "a good idea."
"Well, Sen. Obama," McCain said, "that 'good idea' has now plunged this country into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression."
The context of Obama's quote suggests a different meaning. According to a transcript of a speech Obama gave in September 2007, he said sub-prime loans "started off as a good idea"- helping make home ownership more affordable. But lenders, mortgage brokers and appraisers then abused the system in search of higher profits, he went on to say.
Let us hope that in 2012 a database search turns up more instances where it's the reporter who points out the distortions rather than the campaign operative from the other side. And as for William the Weatherman and Joe the Plumber? Every circus needs a sideshow. But it would be nice if reporters covering the center ring asked more questions about the things candidates DON'T want to talk about. Candidates McCain and Obama said very little about poverty, the burgeoning prison population, global warming, the Middle East and preventing terrorist attacks. Who can blame them? These problems are intractable and costly. But that's exactly why reporters should have asked about them. Otherwise the campaign boils down to which candidate makes a more convincing Santa Claus.
In sum, I think we can say coverage was better in 2008 than it was in 2004-but not nearly as good as it needs to be.