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Barbarians on the TV Screen | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Barbarians on the TV Screen

My new Think Again column is called “Just What Exactly Is Fox News?” and it’s here.

The new Nation column is  “Barbarians at the Gate,” and that’s here.

In German, on the future of journalism.

I see Jonathan Chait has a blog post blaming the Palestinians for the failure of Middle East peace talks, here.

You know it’s weird. Chait blogs all day every day at TNR, taking on targets on the left and right.  He’s known for fighting dirty, of course. When he didn’t like something I said, he published my salary at one of my jobs, but he wasn’t known for his reticence, at least until now.  But do a search like this one: “Peretz, Islam” under Google Blog and you’ll get nearly 25,000 hits. Take out the word “blog” and do a straight Google search and you’ll get over 600,000 hits. And yet, believe it or not, not one of them will contain a post by the fearless Mr. Chait taking a position on whether or not the owner/editor-in-chief of The New Republic is guilty of bigotry against Arabs and Moslems (as well as blacks and Latinos). Suddenly the cat has got his proverbial tongue. Of course, it’s not as if everyone at TNR has a responsibility to denounce or defend the boss. (Though kudos to John Judis for having done so in the past.) But Chait has adopted the public position as the scourge of all hypocrisy, particularly liberal hypocrisy. And yet somehow a person who occupies one of the most important places in the liberal discourse, Marty Peretz, somehow escapes his attention despite garnering as I said,  more than half a million Google hits for his curious views about Islam.  I  have no idea how much Chait is paid to blog at TNR and I don’t really care to find out, except to note that from what I do know about the salaries over there, it is probably not enough to buy the silence of someone who poses as a moral tutor to the rest of us…

I went to see Hitchens debate Tariq Ramadan at the 92 Street Y the other night. It was a wonderfully entertaining night. Christopher, I was pleased to see, was in splendid form and Ramadan was a worthy opponent, who made a great deal of sense, given the difficult position in which he was placed. (I noticed Christopher went rather easy on Judaism and Israel in this crowd, though he is a fan of neither. Anyway, here is Marc Tracy’s report, which would differ from mine, but he did it and I didn’t.

Now here’s Reed:

Reed Richardson writes:

Editorial Boardom

It is a sad commentary on our democracy when a number of this fall’s political candidates have decided that their best chance for a successful campaign involves not doing much traditional campaigning at all. Participating in debates and taking questions from campaign reporters is just so 1998 it seems, while massive self-funded expenditures and TV-ad saturation, however, are now as hot as Lady Gaga. In fact, one candidate seems to be intentionally avoiding any kind of public interaction with voters at all, save for a single bizarre TV ad that, if this politics things doesn’t work out (and polls strongly suggest it won’t), shows she might have a promising career as an artist making ponderous and strangely surreal video installations. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are replacing anachronistic outreach tools like yard signs and direct mail and this week it became clear that there’s one other box on the traditional campaign checklist that candidates are now more and more likely to leave unchecked: courting newspaper editorial boards for political endorsement.

Of course, Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry’s very public refusal to seek newspaper editorial board endorsements earlier this week isn’t without precedent this year. But his brazen dismissal of this campaign season staple did seem to startle his jilted partners and occasioned some serious whining among the editorial board crowd about how corrosive this stance was toward the citizens of Texas and how much of a threat it represented to democracy in general. Well, forgive me but I find this outrage a little too self-serving and disingenuous. After all, the Tyler [Texas] Morning Telegraph, which ran a front-page editorial in last Sunday’s paper blasting Perry’s refusal to stop by their conference room, didn’t see fit to exercise the same level of outrage and concern about our democracy when their Governor hinted at a Tea Party rally last year that Texas might well want to secede from the union because of President Obama’s policies.

Indeed, the tetchiness of the newspaper industry’s response to Perry is telling, it intimates at what most of us already know—that newspaper political endorsements make no sense, serve no real purpose and are long overdue to disappear.

In fact, the little research that exists about the influence that newspaper endorsements have on elections suggests their impact is negligible. This 2007 Pew survey of political endorsements found that a local newspaper’s endorsement had a net influence rating of zero on voters, the same result as found in a similar Pew survey from 2004. Indeed, most of the political endorsers tested in the Pew surveys actually had a deleterious effect on their preferred candidate, turning off more people than they attracted. (Even Oprah, who just broke even in overall influence in 2007, couldn’t do better than newspapers.) In fact, your minister, priest or rabbi’s political clout rated the highest among the choices given, with a net positive rating of 6%, although the survey seems to overlook the inconvenient fact that federal law prohibits tax-exempt churches and other places of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

More scientific studies of newspaper endorsements are a tiny bit more generous, however. This 2004 MIT study, for example, found that:

“[Newspaper] endorsements typically increase the vote share of the endorsed candidate by about 1 to 5 percentage points…But studies that exploit changes in endorsements and votes for specific politicians over time tend to find much smaller benefits, about a 1 to 2 percentage point gain.”

And it’s worth pointing out that, even if true, the modest ballot-box benefit a candidate might gain from a newspaper’s political endorsement this November is probably still less important than other, completely random election-day factors, such as a candidate’s being listed first on the ballot, which this Univ. of Vermont study pegged at being worth around an extra three-and-a-half percentage points during the past two midterm elections.

So why bother? Well, as this American Journalism Review article from 2004 makes clear, political endorsements are like “vestigial remains of those tendentious days of journalism, an era typified even in its waning years by outrageous displays of partisanship that unabashedly sluiced from the editorial pages into all parts of the paper.” (Indeed, the article points out that as recently as 1936, the arch-conservative and stridently anti-FDR Chicago Tribune had that newspaper’s switchboard operators answering the telephone just days before the election with the phrase, “'Hello, Chicago Tribune, only 10 days left to save the American way of life.'" )

Certainly, the editorial board members cited in the AJR article don’t offer up much of a compelling and coherent explanation for continuing the practice. Here was the then-editorial page editor of the San Antonio Express-News, Lynnell Burkett, giving her newspaper’s reasoning:

“‘We're not trying to tell you how to vote,’ says Burkett, ‘but we're giving you our opinion based on the research we've been able to do.’

“We can use the endorsement process, Burkett says, "to position ourselves in terms of credibility, because anybody can say anything, frankly, on the Internet and…on television and talk radio.... If we present ourselves as the source of opinion with no ax to grind, as those who spend our time researching and writing about issues, it seems we can use this as a strategic advantage."

The logic here is quite puzzling, as it uses one of the supposedly sacred tenets of journalism, objectivity—i.e., having “no ax to grind”—to justify a wholly subjective action—endorsing one political candidate versus another. It’s patronizing and elitist as well, since, as NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen points out in the same piece, there’s no such thing as an expert voter in a democracy. Plus, if you strongly suggest that your motives for endorsing in the first place are driven by less than pure, democratic reasons—what’s does “strategic advantage” even mean in this instance?—one has to wonder how far this adherence to credibility burnishing and brand-building goes. Does that explain, for example, why newspapers back 80% of incumbents today versus 56% of them 50 years ago, as the MIT study found? Has the endorsement process now boiled down to ‘Who’s got the best shot to win and make us look smart?’

In addition to these unseemly questions about motives, another underlying implication here is that readers who dine solely on a newspaper’s straight campaign reporting might be starved for the proper political sustenance when it comes to making an informed choice on election day. What’s more, it’s well documented that for much of the public, these political endorsements have the effect of painting an entire newspaper with the same partisan brush. But wait, an editorial page editor might say, that’s an unfair characterization because we take steps to ensure that our editorial board opinions don’t cross over and influence the news side—look instead at our actual reportage for proof that we can both have opinions on the editorial page and keep them out of our straight news coverage.

That's a fair and imminently reasonable argument. Sadly, mastheads don’t seem to practice this same common-sense approach when it comes to their own employees, as that lower, appearing-biased-is-biased standard is the exact same reasoning that newspapers like the New York Times use to justify their draconian ethics guidelines. Why can’t a newspaper’s staff also be judged on the merits of their individual work product rather than be subject to a broad brush policy that prohibits almost all individual political expression? After all, they may perfectly capable of separating their personal political beliefs from their work. Indeed, it’s ironic that a paper like the Times, which invests so much importance in its thousands of editorial employees never displaying a political sign in their front yard (or Facebook wall), goes and sticks a giant political billboard on its editorial page at the end of every election season. And who pays the price for this glaring case of actual bias appearing in the newspaper, those same reporters and editors whose journalism careers would be seriously jeopardized if they dared to even wear a campaign button.

At the end of the AJR article, Project for Excellence in Journalism director Tom Rosenstiel, said the various reasons given for continuing political endorsements all boil down to “good intentions.”

“‘Done well,’ [Rosenstiel] says, ‘editorial endorsements get us very close to what journalism is all about, which is citizen debate. Done poorly, of course, it's just a big institution muscling, pushing its weight around.’”

However, a journalism profession struggling to earn back the confidence of a skeptical public increasingly resembles the latter in an era where the newshole is larger, wider and deeper than ever before. Yes, the public should welcome any attempt to make sense of this often overwhelming deluge of information, but a hybrid, two-headed newspaper model, where obsessively neutral, he-said, she-said news reporting is hermetically sealed off from editorial opinion and analysis is simply no longer viewed as authentic or trustworthy. As yet another example of this aging journalism architecture, political endorsements, despite any good intentions by the editorial boards that make them, simply lead our democracy down the wrong road.

The mail

Clay Landon
Hermosa Beach
I was bitterly resentful of Christopher Hitchens because of his move to the right politically and his lambasting of the Dalai Lama. When I say bitterly resentful, I mean that I held a grudge against the man, literally wishing for his slow, painful death.  I write to tell you how ugly and stupid I feel for those wishes. I loved your column on Hitchens and my prayers go out to him and his family. I like these feelings that I have for Hitchens and they all came from your column. So thanks for that, Eric.

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