Sunday, January 24, 2010

Man on the Street

Seen from the outside, one of the toughest jobs in political reporting must be matching up the qualitative with the quantitative -- that is, filling in the abstractions of poll numbers by reporting on how individual voters talk about politics.  I suppose there are probably some people who think it's all a waste of time, that there's no way that a reporter covering, say, the MA Senate race can possibly speak to enough people that she can really know with any certainty what "the voters" are thinking.  I don't agree with that point of view.  Good person-on-the-street reporting, such as the "hanging out at the coffee shop" or "hanging out at the barber shop" piece, can definitely, in my view, tell us things that we can't quite get from the polls.  Not to mention that lots of people find that sort of thing more interesting than numbers, and I don't begrudge the press their efforts to appeal to readers.  But I imagine they're hard to do.  Walk into the wrong coffee shop at the wrong time, and you can get a totally warped view of what "people" are thinking. I assume that good reporters who learn how to do these stories have all kinds of methods they use to separate a couple of yahoos they run into from the "people" who we want to hear about.

Kevin Drum, however, points out that some of the traditional methods may now be dated.  He reads this Karen Tumulty post, in which the reporter -- and I do think she's an excellent reporter -- was shocked at how many voters in Massachusetts knew all about about the deal that Ben Nelson struck on behalf of Nebraska.  But as Drum points out,
Did people bring up Ben Nelson's deal unbidden? Sure. Because Fox News and talk radio have been screaming about it nonstop. Ditto for the union deal. The people who brought it up were almost certainly primarily conservatives who listen to conservative media and have been getting an earful of these outrages on an hourly basis for weeks. Again: this isn't a sign of a huge new tsunami of resentment against healthcare reform. These are mostly the same people who have been opposed to it from the start.
Tumulty says that "[t]he deal now known as the "Cornhusker Kickback" may have been one of the biggest blunders in modern political history."  What that misses is that if it wasn't Nelson's deal that the talk radio yakkers were gabbing about, it would have been the deal with Louisiana, or if not that then perhaps it would be death panels, or something else. 

Here's the point: Politics, in one respect, has really changed over the last two decades.  Both parties, but especially the Republicans, now have highly efficient ways to get their talking points out to the rank-and-file, without confusing things by also informing them of the larger context.  That's really different than things were in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  Back then, politically attentive people would watch the network news and the local news and look at the occasional newspaper, and maybe Time or Newsweek, and on top of that they would also be exposed to party talking points.  Now, to a great extent, people's only exposure to the news may consist of the party's talking points (again, especially on the Republican side).  So the old job of finding out how well those talking points are resonating by hearing whether ordinary folks use them to talk about politics is no longer a useful task.  Increasingly, the only language to which people -- once again, especially Republicans -- are exposed is those talking points.  For a Rush/Beck listener, there isn't another language available to discuss the health care bill.

In other words, the old rules don't apply, and the kind of preparation that reporters would have learned up through the 1980s (and even beyond; a lot of this is just 10-15 years old) might no longer work. 


  1. What we've had is a perversion of once "trusted" sources.

    Your banker no longer looks to put you into a home, it's about meeting sales goals. Your newscaster no longer reports the news, they report "talking points" or hyperbolic opinions.

    Blame the 80's, the "me first" generation, or any culutural shift. But the collective attitude of the 50's and 60's (that Conservative rail about with wonder) has been subjegated by a intrinsic focus on individual goals.

  2. This is the fundamental difference between the right and the left. The right can be herded. Rush Limbaugh insinuates that Obama has sex with dead children. In 40 nanaseconds, 40 million Americans have e-mails in their boxes talking about Obama's perversion with dead children. In the next hour Faux News is reporting "Some are saying that Obama has sex with dead children." The next day Lou Dobbs is saying "I'm just asking the question--there's nothing wrong with asking a question: does Barack Hussein Obama have sex with dead children". Twenty-four hours later, a WaPo poll shows that 48% of Americans think Obama has sex with dead children, 37% think he doesn't, and 15% "don't know".

    This is the way the right rolls. They think they will always win this way. And they're right.

  3. Its very much out of fashion, I know, but one attractive feature of the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" was that it was much harder to outright lie to an audience and get away with it. Broadcast licenses were regarded as near-sacred public trusts, with expectations and requirements attached. That paradigm became a quaint artifact in the Reagan era. Also, the shift of journalism from a Constitutionally-protected public service to a corporate profit center drove the race to the bottom in terms of substance and quality - making nearly everything in mass media tabloid-esque.
    Rational discussions of policy questions are too boring to fit into a smack-down celebrity narrative, served up in 6- or 7-minute hate bursts. Cronkite warned us of all this decades ago.

  4. The old style allowed just one point of view, the frustration on the part of many, including the author of this blog (notice his frustration that voters have become aware of the LA purchase, the cornhusker kickback, etc), is that now there are competing points of view. The once dominant progressive/left views of news and news commentators is now, finally, challenged.

    The Left only wins, even with a filibuster proof majority in the Senate and the vast majority in the House and the most left leaning President in History, if they can hide the truth from the voters. They can't stand the fact that once Americans fully understand their agenda, it is rejected.

  5. Welcome all to Plain Blog...

    Anon 8:43:

    Absolutely not true that only conservatives follow opinion leadership. We all do -- conservative, liberal, moderate, whatever. However, I do think that conservatives right now have a more efficient means of transmitting talking points. It's possible that there are differences in how receptive people are by ideology, but only on the margins; we all echo talking points we've heard elsewhere.

    Anon 9:07

    Not sure about that; the Gulf of Tonkin lie did just fine in the Fairness Doctrine era, and on the whole there's far more "rational discussion" available now than there was in, say, 1965 or 1975 -- there's more of it on CNN than there was on all three networks combined back then, and that's not counting CSPAN, or non-TV sources. There's just also far more partisan stuff (some of which is quite good, most of which is not).

    Anon 10:48

    I'm not frustrated that people know about that stuff. I do think that reporters need to understand the media environment in which people turn out to know particular facts. It is true, however, that I don't think that stuff like the Nelson thing are very important, and I don't think that logrolling is a bad thing. Oddly enough, it's the Progressives that didn't like logrolling and deal-making, so if you don't like those sorts of things, you might be a lot more of a Progressive than you think.

  6. Speaking as a political journalist in Massachusetts, I would note in my view the Nelson deal, as it was characterized by both the reflexive right and the goo-goo left, was a pivotal event in this Senate election; it crystallized the message of the campaign and provided a transference of the prevalent mood against Democrats at the state level, to Democrats at the national level. I agree that if it hadn't been the Nelson deal it could have been something else -- but to your point about reporters in the field, had we seen how potent that issue was to people in the coffee shops, that might have told us something about voters' engagement in this race and how it might translate into turnout.

  7. David,

    I don't can you tell that it was the Nelson deal that did those things (crystallized...provided)? Perhaps -- more likely, in my opinion -- people were energized by a combination of (1) the economy, and (2) Fox/talk show rabble rousing, which would have had the same effect regardless of the content of the message.

    It *is* news that people say they're voting because of X issue...but that doesn't mean they're really voting because of X issue. People are really bad at knowing stuff like that. So I have no problem with someone reporting that conservatives seem really riled up, and X is what they're talking about, but I'd suggest a lot of caution before reporting that conservatives are really riled up because of X, which is what they're talking about.

  8. Anon 907 here...

    Your points are well taken, RE: Tonkin. My thoughts on the Fairness Doctrine are primarily in how it related to radio. Reagan's FCC did away with it in 1987 - the same year that Limbaugh began syndicating his "infotainment." He and his legions of wannabees have truly degraded the discourse.

  9. Anon 907,

    Rush is a talented dude; my guess is that he'd be doing what he does regardless of the FD. It might have knocked out some of the wannabes, though. But, if Dennis Miller didn't have a radio show, he might well be on Showtime, or somewhere else beyond the reach of the FD. At any rate, as far as my personal opinion, I'm a free speech guy; I'd rather have a lot of junk out there than have regulation.

    Of course, the main point is that for good or bad, there's absolutely no sign that the FD is ever going to return.

  10. Anon 907 Final note...

    It sure doesn't seem likely that the Fairness Doctrine is coming back - you're right about that. I view the media's role in the political environment as analogous to a village's water supply... and just because Rush, is talented (or, has a large bladder) doesn't make it right or desirable that he's/they're encouraged to piss in it. The problem with having a lot of junk out there in the water is that much of it is toxic, and has made the body politic seriously ill.
    -Thank you for accepting and addressing comments.


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