By Toni Palmeri
Though not old enough to vote at the time, the first political campaign I followed closely was Jimmy “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust” Carter vs. Gerald “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” Ford in 1976. Subsequently I became a bona fide political communication junkie, almost obsessively keeping tabs on local, state and national elections.
Like most voters I rely on mainstream mass media for information about issues and candidates. I peruse newspapers, magazines, television, radio and a variety of electronic media sources. The experience is never pleasant, is often maddening, and requires sifting through tons of bull crap to get to anything beneficial.
What’s frustrating is that before each election cycle, mainstream media always promise to feature reporting and punditry that will be high quality or at least better than the last time. Before the election season commences, the media create an image of themselves that they never quite live up to: the image of the crusading fourth estate debunking candidates’ false claims, forcing serious and wide-ranging discussion of vital issues, and being responsive to the real concerns of the electorate.
In failing to live up to an image, mainstream media are much like some politicians. In The Congress Dictionary, Paul Dickson and Paul Clancy refer to “the phenomenon of not living up to an image” as the “Ottinger effect.”
Representative Richard Ottinger was a liberal New York Democrat who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1970. The Republican in the race, Charles Goodell, was appointed to complete Bobby Kennedy’s term. Soon after being seated, Goodell irked Republicans by speaking and acting much like Kennedy, especially in opposition to the Vietnam War.
The New York Conservative Party nominated James Buckley, and with Goodell and Ottinger splitting the liberal vote Buckley won the seat. Ottinger could and should have won the election, even with another liberal in the race, but in debates and other public appearances he could not live up to the statesmanlike image promised by his slick TV ads. Texas Governor Rick Perry’s dismal primary campaign for president this year is a good example of the Ottinger effect on the conservative side.
Like Ottinger and Perry, mass media promise something edgy and different but when it comes time to deliver the goods they are essentially empty suits. Below are three examples of the mass media election season Ottinger effect.
First, the failure to effectively debunk false claims. False claims are a fact of life in politics; a rigorous watchdog media is really the only way to hold liars accountable. Unfortunately, the mainstream media’s addiction to a mistaken understanding of “balance” creates a “they all do it” mentality that makes the fact check process almost pointless. Factcheck.org and Politifact.com once held great promise as guides to exposing BS in politics, but both sites are now like a football referee who calls nothing but offsetting penalties justified via convoluted, rambling explanations.
Second, the lack of wide-ranging discussion. We’re in a presidential election year where the major parties and candidates disturbingly agree on a wide range of issues, from austerity to national security. Yet the mass media will not insist on the presence of third party candidates at debates, nor even question the legitimacy of the “Commission” that blocks third party participation.
The Green Party’s Jill Stein, the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson, and the Constitution Party’s Virgil Goode, in spite of mainstream media’s only token mention of their names, will all be on the ballot in enough states to technically be able to get enough electoral votes to win the presidency. Additionally, the three of them are the only candidates saying anything substantive about issues. Yet the overwhelming majority of voters will hear nothing about them. More than anything else, mainstream media censorship of ballot-qualified third party candidates exposes the incestuous relationship between the major parties and the press.
Third, the failure to be responsive to the real concerns of the electorate. National election coverage especially is now indistinguishable from Entertainment Tonight. In Time Magazine James Poniewozik calls 2012 the “Year of the Nontroversy.” He argues that “political news has become full of these trumped up, social media and cable news fanned brouhahas over quotes, anecdotes and associations. We’re coming off a decade of war and financial ruin, yet our politics have gone from Israeli settlements to Irish setters, from 9/11 to 7 Eleven.”
I’d have given Poniewozik’s column an “A” if he’d pointed out that Time itself long ago established the standard for shallow coverage of campaigns.
Media failure to respond to the real concerns of the electorate is not just a national phenomenon. Talk to anyone who’s ever run for city council or town board and they’ll tell you that voters consistently tell them they are concerned about cracked streets, crime, garbage pick up, removing bird droppings from the parks, snow and ice removal, and other less than sexy issues. But in order for the local media to call someone a “progressive” candidate, he or she has to sign on to some big ticket Chamber of Commerce demand like tax incremental financing or other questionable tax shifting schemes.
Want to be better informed about elections? You took a great first step by reading this month’s SCENE! ν
Tony Palmeri (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of communication studies at UW Oshkosh.