Hype Versus Reality

Statue of Liberty with lower Manhattan in the background

Fifty years ago, when I was getting started in national politics, Ibrahim Abu Lughod, a friend and mentor, offered words of wisdom I never forgot. Although he read the New York Times every day (he called it his “daily drug”), he cautioned me not to be fooled or swayed by the ebb and flow of events as they are covered in the press. Instead, he insisted that it was important to keep focused on the long-view—the deep currents that pointed in the direction we were heading.

While Ibrahim was specifically referring to coverage of events from the Middle East, I recalled his sage advice this week as I followed the reporting and what passed for analysis of Tuesday’s Democratic primary elections. According to the national media, in these contests, the party’s progressive wing “hit a wall,” “suffered a series of setbacks,” or was just plain “defeated.” This was in marked contrast to the assessment made a little over one month ago in the aftermath of the stunning victories of Alexandria Ocazio-Cortez and Ben Jealous — both of whom defeated establishment-favored candidates. Back then, we were told that there was an “insurgent upsurge”, while just two weeks earlier the same media outlets were describing the progressive movement as being on life-support.

This jumping back and forth struggling to find a single theme with which to describe the 2018 election (or any story) could be dismissed as simply a series of mistaken judgments. I suspect, however, that the problem runs deeper. Here are a few possible explanations:

In the first place, hype beats being thoughtful. Despite its self-serving claims, the mainstream media, in its print and electronic forms, isn’t always balanced, objective, or in-depth. Whether the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News, the job of major media outlets, as they see it, is to grow their audience and sell products (both their own and those of their advertisers). Apparently believing that straight news and thoughtful analysis are boring and have no market value, news marketers have opted for the hype to boost viewership.

This is especially true in the case of television, where, for example, the “Breaking News” banner screams across the screen in regular intervals announcing stories that are oftentimes neither “breaking” nor “news.” For example, while it can be debated whether or not a bizarre Trump tweet should be given “Breaking News” treatment at 9:00 am, the fact that this same item is still being referred to as such at 4:00 pm is absurd.

Then, there’s the problem of media “group-think” or “pack journalism”. The late Eugene McCarthy, a former Senator and 1968 presidential candidate, once famously compared the media to crows on a power line – “When one lands, they all land. When one takes off, they all take off.”

Looking back at coverage of George W. Bush’s infamous Iraq War “Mission Accomplished” speech, it is striking to see how many liberal and conservative pundits waxed poetic about his performance, describing it as a “presidential” display of “strong leadership”. Equally striking, is how once it became clear that the speech was—to be polite—premature, the very same pundits turned on a dime into critics without ever acknowledging their error or apologizing for their earlier fawning. (It appears that being a media pundit means never having to admit you were wrong.)

This group-think problem has been compounded by the network’s penchant for inviting journalists to serve as commentators. Night after night, the cable news shows feature show after show of journalists interviewing other journalists – with little or no external independent input. In this situation, agreement with one’s peers is viewed as wisdom—”when one lands, they all land…”

Finally, there’s the issue of laziness and shallowness leading to snap judgments and hype. This frequently occurs in reporting on political polling—like presidential job performance ratings. A network will announce as “Breaking News” that a new poll shows Trump’s rating has hit a new low. Discussing this topic will consume endless hours of punditry without anyone questioning whether this particular poll is, in fact, an accurate reading of the public’s mood.

The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato has cautioned about the media’s use and abuse of political polling data. He has warned that the results of two polls can’t be compared unless their methodologies and demographics are the same. He also warns against making claims as to whether the results of a new poll represent a genuine shift in attitudes if the difference the polls being compared is within the polls’ margins of error. In other words, a telephone poll of “likely voters” cannot be compared with an online poll of “adults.” And it is not permissible to conclude that there has been a change in attitudes when the difference between two polls is 3 percentage points, when both polls have a margin of error of +/- 3.5%. Such wisdom falls on deaf ears if the results of a false comparison can be shocking enough to be hyped as “Breaking News”.

Back to the media-driven roller coaster treatment of the last three rounds of primaries. There is a story to be told about this year’s primaries — actually several interesting stories—and not the dizzying “they’re down, no they’re up, no wait, they’re really down” story we’ve been given.

In some instances, progressives have been able to out-organize ossified, out-of-touch establishment candidates. While in other cases the experience, funding, and institutional advantages of the establishment have created hurdles too high for less experienced insurgents to overcome.

Nevertheless, what is clear is that whether they are winning or losing, on any particular Tuesday, progressives are putting their stamp on this election cycle. Issues that were dismissed as too radical a decade ago are now being embraced by a growing number of candidates, even those from the establishment. And truly progressive candidates are winning races up and down the ballot, creating a new dynamic in American politics.

Thirty years ago, Democrats were running away from the “liberal” label, now polls are showing that the most popular politician among Democrats is a socialist Senator. Issues like Medicare for all, investment in green energy, $15 minimum wage, and free college for all—are now front and center in political campaigns. This may not be as sexy as the “sky is falling” coverage we’ve been getting, but its closer to the truth of what’s happening in this year’s elections.