on April 24, 2003
Jamieson and Waldman offer a highly critical overview of media coverage, focusing on the 2000 Presidential election, but also touching on historical issues such as the Nixon Presidency and the Gulf of Tonkin incident. They are equally critical of the coverage given to Bush and Gore, in an impressive display of non-partisanship that is lacking in our media today. They encourage reporters to research the statements by candidates and to not simply accept the frame given to them by interested parties but to investigate and to put a truly fair and balanced frame around it. One issue that they note but could have gone into more detail on is that the media almost universally present issues as a for/against disagreement, whereas in reality there are often (I might argue almost always) more than two points of view on a given issue and the press ignores all but the two that are most easily reduced to sound bites.
The Press Effect suggests the media frames issues and candidates in a way that their future stories on the subjects will tend to fit neatly inside the pre-conceived box. Since the media is a follow-the-leader game, once a frame takes hold it doesn't let go very easily. Jamieson and Waldman use this theory mainly to explore the 2000 Election between Gore and Bush.
Gore's many misstatements through his political career led the press to frame him as dishonest. Bush's flubs through his short political career convinced the press to put him in the frame of unintelligent. The result were campaign stories that asked voters to choose between the smart, but untrustworthy Gore and the dumb but affable Bush. The examples of media coverage in the book support this theory pretty well.
Next the authors cite the examples of Gore's untruths and basically defend each one as a misunderstanding, leaving Gore as a more honest individual than painted by the media. As a reader, I anticipated the authors next explaining that Bush was actually a smarter man than he was given credit for, after all he has an MBA from Harvard. Instead the authors quote a New Yorker article where a reporter cites George W. Bush's average grades at Yale. This is was a surprise, because the story was unverified by Yale and it doesn't take into account that grades have much more to do with ambition and drive than intelligence. There was no attempt to give Bush the same credit that the authors spent giving Gore. An opportunity to support their main thesis was left on the floor, which gives one the feeling that the real purpose of the book is to defend Gore not shame the media. This same pattern is repeated when the authors discuss the Florida recount.
It's unfortunate that Jamieson and Waldman abandon the scholarly for the advocacy role because there is a lot of other research in the book that seems dead on. They bemoan that fact that reporters do a terrible job of verifying the evidence and drawing conclusions. Instead, the authors argue that the media play into the "he said, she said" game of political strategy. The story becomes about how the candidates disagree with each other on their positions more than the actual substance of those positions. They also state that the media loves to play psychologist when they should instead be playing fact-finder.
I found the basic theories in the book supported by good evidence. But the advocacy of Gore and the silence on Bush in the analysis sections detracted from the book's purported goal of exposing the media's laziness. I'm sure that the authors would say that they had no intention of propping up Gore, but parts of the book seem to strengthen the media frame on Bush which weakens the overall argument of the book. This is surprising since Bush could have been defended as easily as Gore.
Anyway, I think the authors do a fine job casting a spotlight on the media's "follow the leader" approach and that's enough recommend it despite my other misgivings.
on June 23, 2008
This is nicely written, not wordy or loaded with polysci jargon. She reviews national events, mostly political, and how the media covered or created them.
It is rather painful but enlightening to see how some of the "what everybody knows" about a particular candidate started off as speculation by someone, then got quoted as fact by the rest of the pack.
Another reminder of how gullible people are so the media can lead us around by the nose and how important it is to be extremely skeptical about the way the media characterize candidates. Also I'm reminded how important it is to have sources from outside the US media market such as BBC.
on August 11, 2003
One of the most bothersome things about journalism today is how frequently lies and distortions promulgated on all sides of the political spectrum, particularly the right side, become accepted as truth. To a large extent, as this book points out, this is the fault of journalists, whose primary job is, or should be, to discover and report the truth about important issues of the day. Democracy cannot function well if the public is constantly mislead. And simply presenting opposing views does not help the public determine the truth. Truth telling needs to be rewarded and deception needs to be punished. This is not happening now.
Real journalism is not about repeating the "spin" but finding the truth.
As the book says: "Reporters should help the public make sense of competing political arguments by defining terms, filling in needed information, assessing the accuracy of the evidence being offered, and relating the claims and counterclaims to the probable impact of the proposed policies on citizens and the country."
This can be hard work. It is much easier to focus on the "horse race" and personalities and that is why over 70% of elections stories in 2000 did not mention any issue at all.
This book should be required reading for all journalists and concerned citizens.