I blame the media

By Megan McArdle

Glenn Greenwald complains that Barack Obama's various pecadillos are covered more than John Yoo because journalists are a bunch of arrogant lightweights:

Needless to say, these serious and accomplished political journalists are only focusing on these stupid and trivial matters because this is what the Regular Folk care about. They speak for the Regular People, and what the Regular People care about is not Iraq or the looming recession or health care or lobbyist control of our government or anything that would strain the brain of these reporters. What those nice little Regular Folk care about is whether Obama is Regular Folk just like them, whether he can bowl and wants to gorge himself with junk food.

Our nation's coddled, insulated journalist class reaches these conclusions about what Regular Folk think using the most self-referential, self-absorbed thought process imaginable. The proof that the Regular People are interested in these things is that . . . the journalists themselves chatter about it endlessly.



Daniel Drezner responds:

To me, this indicates the following:

1) Comparing NEXIS searches of events where the media cycle has yet to play out with events where the media cycle has played out is really disingenuous way of making one's point;

2) There are more press mentions of an event when the target of the media inquiry actually responds to the press. To my knowledge, John Yoo has said nothing since the terror memo was leaked, and the Bush administration has clammed up as well. Barack Obama, on the other hand, clearly did respond to the Jeremiah Wright business, leading to multiple news cycles about that issue;

3) Shockingly, the press appears to be more interested in events that determine the future (i.e., who will be the next president?) than in events that look back at the past. [Isn't that a slanted way of contrasting these events?-ed. Compared to Greenwald's slant? No, not really.];

4) Glenn Greenwald might be a good blogger/columnist, but he's not that great at social science.



For a guy who works in the media, he doesn't know much about his profession, either.

Start with Barack Obama. Americans care more about him than John Yoo because, well, John Yoo isn't running for president. Indeed, if one in ten Americans had even heard of John Yoo, I would be shocked, because most people don't care about minor government functionaries, no matter how pivotal their role may be in screwing up the world. I live in Washington DC, the throbbing heart of political trivia, and my sister works for HUD. Nonethelss, I had to look up the name of Alphonso Jackson, the HUD secretary, when allegations surfaced that he had grossly misused his office to help friends. After being forced to step down, he garnered slightly more Nexis hits than John Yoo's name in the last month. But both lost out to Jamie Lynn Spears, who ooh! might be secretly engaged.

This is not because journalists are insulated from their readers. It is because readers buy more papers with headlines about Jamie Lynn Spears than they do with headlines about Alphonso Jackson or John Yoo, since as I think I just mentioned, they have never heard of either person. You can lead a consumer to stories of vital national importance, but you cannot make him care. You can just make him pass over your paper in favor of the Enquirer.

It's all very well to say that journalists should cover the more serious stories, and bloggers like Glenn Greenwald, and maybe occasionally me, make such complaints all the time. But even really successful bloggers on things like economic and foreign policy have fewer daily readers than a struggling local paper in a moderately sized midwestern city. Now imagine those readers evenly distributed across a nation of 300 million, and then ask yourself why their concerns do not headline every paper. As well to wonder why they aren't all carrying stories on fire response times in the Syracuse, NY area.

Obviously, I think John Yoo's adventures are a matter of slightly greater national importance. (As indeed do our nation's media, who--aside from the Syracuse Post-Standard--ran virtually no coverage of the topic over the last month.) But voters can't do much about John Yoo now, other than choose a different type of president. Maybe they should do that by eagerly scanning Obama and Clinton and McCain's platforms--though I am at a loss to think how one might have divined a John Yoo from the anodyne folia of the Bush 2000 campaign. As far as anyone can tell, however, this is not how voters decide. Believe me, nearly every journalist in DC wants to write in-depth stories on foreign policy questions, and nearly every editor in the nation would dearly love to sell them. If there were a millions-deep wellspring of interest in the topic, some enterprising publication would already have tapped it dry.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2008/04/i-blame-the-media/3197/