Ever since taking AP U.S. Government in high school, I’ve been curious to learn more about the 2008 presidential election, which will be held on November 4, 2008 (1). But where to turn for accurate and unbiased information covering the presidential campaigns out there? The only piece of information I remember learning in class about media coverage of presidential campaigns is that they always focused too much on the horse race of campaigning instead of relevant issues. Is there a way of changing this without infringing upon the media’s First Amendment freedoms of speech and press?
“Horse race coverage” focuses on the competitive aspects of the campaign—who’s ahead in the polls, which dirty tactics each campaign is using, and the amount of fundraising conducted. This type of reporting has been criticized for unfairly giving too much attention to candidates in the lead and for ignoring important topics such as a candidate’s background or stance on salient issues (2). The persistence of horse race coverage in the media today is well-documented in a recent study surveying 1, 742 news stories by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard (3). This study reveals that 63% of all of the stories focused on the “political and tactical aspects of the campaign,” while only 15% focused on candidates’ policy proposals and only 17% focused on their personal backgrounds (4). This is sharply divergent from what the public wants the media to cover, according to a poll by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. This poll demonstrates that a majority of Americans want to learn more about candidates’ positions on the issues (77%), their personal backgrounds and experiences (55%), and information about lesser-known candidates (55%) (4).
This disparity between the realities of horse race coverage and the desires of the American public necessarily lead to a sober consideration of what can be done to change this situation, if anything. A libertarian interpretation of the circumstances results in the conclusion that the media cannot be fettered by the government in its editorial discretion. The government would necessarily be the judge regulating media coverage and determining whether or not something constitutes “horse race coverage,” a vague and ambiguous term. Thus the government could easily abuse its power and censor the media unnecessarily (prior restraint warning bells, anyone?). Logistically, also, the task seems impossible—there are so many subjective interpretations of whether or not an article is “tactical.” Furthermore, there is no selective audience here. Even if the mainstream media failed to provide crucial information, the public could always divert its attention to other forums such as the Internet.
But neoliberals would take a different stance. The role of the media as the Fourth Estate, after all, is to act as check on the government. This would seem to be in line with the libertarian interpretation of the situation. However, the media is also important in promoting the welfare of a democracy by necessarily serving a crucial role during election time. As former Senator Paul Wellstone says, “We depend on the media for the free flow of information that enables citizens to participate in the democratic process” (5). What exactly should the nature of this “free flow of information” be, however? The majority of the public seems to believe that the media is not doing its duty in presenting all of the relevant information needed to select the best candidate for President. The public knows almost nothing about the least-covered candidates who could potentially be powerful contenders. Without a transparent presentation of all of the facts, the public is not knowledgeable enough to make an informed decision about who the President should be (although this concern may have prompted the Founders to form the Electoral College, but there are still primaries to consider). In other words, there is the public’s right to know to consider also.
Although First Amendment considerations incline me towards the libertarians, I can’t help sympathizing with the neoliberals on an issue that is crucial to the preservation of our democracy. Citizens need to be informed before voting in order to make the best decision. Although governmental intervention infringes upon the media’s First Amendment rights, there are other methods the public can pursue to ensure more balanced coverage of issues important to them. These include lobbying the media itself or even starting citizen journalist blogs covering the campaign.
Addendum: I have already addressed this in a previous blog, so I didn’t bring up the biases inherent in political media coverage that the study also revealed, such as favoritism towards Barack Obama and dislike towards Senator John McCain. The issues surrounding the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 apply to campaign coverage as well, but those are also discussed here.