What The Media Covers

Amid the mounting liberal hysteria about how John McCain is running the most despicable campaign ever etc. etc., Ezra Klein deserves credit for this (relatively) cool-headed observation:

The McCain campaign's decision to lie about, well, everything, really needs to be understood as more than the outcome of John McCain's consuming ambition. It is a rational and obvious response to the rules laid down by the media. Indeed, McCain's spokesperson Brian Rogers says this directly to The Politico's Jonathan Martin. "We ran a different kind of campaign and nobody cared about us. They didn't cover John McCain. So now you've got to be forward-leaning in everything."

And it's true. Earlier this year McCain made poverty tours and offered policy speeches. No one cared, Obama retained his lead. It was only when he began offering vicious attacks and daily controversies that he began setting the pace of the coverage. The McCain campaign learned something important about the media: It's an institution that covers conflict. If you want to direct its coverage, give it more conflict than your opponent. And so they have.

In broad outline, I agree with this point. (It's also worth noting that McCain wanted to do a long and unprecedented series of town-hall meetings with Obama, which would have given the campaign a very different feel - and Obama, seeing no upside at a time when it looked like he might coast to landslide, said no.) But I also think Ezra is a little too hard on the media here. Yes, the press feeds on conflict and flees from policy substance, but to a large extent that's because the public feeds on conflict and flees from policy substance, however much wonks and watchdogs would like to think otherwise. (I make this observation with the awareness that Megan and Glenn Greenwald - and Greenwald's commenters - went about sixty rounds on this issue earlier in in the year: Start here, if you dare.) I have as much contempt for the way the media initially reacted to Sarah Palin's nomination as Ezra has contempt for how the press covered, say, the "lipstick on a pig" controversy or the "celebrity" ad. But I also know what's going on in the newspaper business these days, and I can read those Times "most e-mailed" lists and see what stories get read and circulated, and as appalled as I was by the three front-page stories America's newspaper of record ran on Bristol Palin the day after the news of her pregnancy broke ... well, I can see why they did it. And if the high-information voters who read the Times wanted "all Bristol all the time," imagine if you're a paper or a TV show trying desperately to reach an audience of low-information voters - like the swing voters Chris Hayes so memorably profiled here:

Undecided voters don't think in terms of issues. Perhaps the greatest myth about undecided voters is that they are undecided because of the "issues." That is, while they might favor Kerry on the economy, they favor Bush on terrorism; or while they are anti-gay marriage, they also support social welfare programs. Occasionally I did encounter undecided voters who were genuinely cross-pressured--a couple who was fiercely pro-life, antiwar, and pro-environment for example--but such cases were exceedingly rare. More often than not, when I asked undecided voters what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds I was met with a blank stare, as if I'd just asked them to name their favorite prime number.

The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn't name a single issue that was important to them. This was shocking to me. Think about it: The "issue" is the basic unit of political analysis for campaigns, candidates, journalists, and other members of the chattering classes. It's what makes up the subheadings on a candidate's website, it's what sober, serious people wish election outcomes hinged on, it's what every candidate pledges to run his campaign on, and it's what we always complain we don't see enough coverage of.

But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to.

If you haven't, read the whole thing. And then let me say something else in the press's defense, which is that John McCain's attempt to run a "different kind of campaign" earlier in the year was largely a matter of symbolism and procedure rather than substance, and to a certain extent the media gave it the treatment it deserved. McCain went to places Republicans don't usually go, and proposed a series of informal debates that represented a departure from what presidential candidates usually do ... but when it came to those policy speeches, he didn't seem interested in taking big risks or making hard choices, and this no doubt affected how (and how often) the press covered his campaign. In their first races for the presidency, both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton promised to take their parties in new directions, and both offered substance to back these promises up; the press treated them like new-model candidates because there was actually good reason to think that they were. McCain, by contrast, has promised to take his party in a new direction, but the centerpiece of his reform agenda is ... cutting earmarks. Maybe that's a laudable goal, but "compassionate conservatism" or "ending welfare as we know it" it sure isn't, and you can't fool reporters into thinking that it is. The press is allergic to policy detail, but they do respond, at least to some extent, to innovation and unconventional proposals - and if McCain's agenda had been bolder, his attempt to run a more high-minded campaign in the early going might have earned him more press coverage than he ended up receiving. Any politician can claim to be running as a new kind of a candidate - but unless you're Barack Obama, who wears his newness in his name and on his skin, you need to prove it, and then prove it again, before the media will take you seriously.