I love to watch people’s attitudes toward media shift as the facts of a story changes. I’m never sure whether what I’m seeing is funny or pathetic, though. I guess it’s both.
I’m reminded of that again as I watch various people try to decide what they think of media reports in the last week or two that Ron Paul just might be doing well in Iowa. As the facts of the story have changed, pro-Paul and anti-Paul people have both scrambled to spin the media’s role to suit their own narrative.
For a long time, there wasn’t anything especially positive for the media to report about Paul. He hung around down around 10 percent in real polls and it was clear to all that his positions weren’t going to be adopted by the mainstream anytime soon, so he wasn’t someone to take especially seriously in news coverage. (Let’s not get sidetracked into fanatical craziness about straw polls and website “polls,” both of which are about as close to meaningless as you can get.)
During that period, news coverage was mostly about which candidates were jockeying for the lead or about which new candidates were seen as having the potential to become serious challengers. There wasn’t much to say about Paul in either of those regards. (Remember that the media cover elections as though they’re horse races, not as though they’re about ideas. The public wouldn’t bother to read or watch actual intellectual coverage.) So during that period, all I heard was screams from my Paul-loving friends that the media “hate” Paul and that they’re “trying to make sure he can’t win.”
Nothing of the sort was going on, but I guess it made them feel better. At the same time, the neoconservatives of the GOP mainstream were quite happy with the media’s Paul coverage, because it suited what they wanted to see happen, so they were mostly smugly silent about the coverage.
Then something shifted. In a state that’s not especially representative of the rest of the country, a poll or two has come out showing that Paul is actually a contender in Iowa. Suddenly, he was a legitimate part of the conversation about the Iowa caucuses, rather than just the libertarian freakshow. When that happened, the Paul supporters and the Paul-haters switched sides on media coverage.
As the news has turned positive for Paul, Rush Limbaugh has gone ballistic in attacking him, even making a fake campaign ad to mock Paul this week. What’s more, earlier this month, he told a caller that Paul had “nothing to do with the Tea Party,” conveniently forgetting that the whole Tea Party movement grew out of Paul’s supporters. And on Monday, Limbaugh told viewers that the “mainstream media” will try to build Paul up if he wins Iowa.
What’s my point? Simple. When there was nothing positive to report about Paul’s campaign, pro-Paul people were angry and convinced that “the mainstream media” was opposed to them. Now that there is something positive to report about the Paul campaign — and it’s being reported — the anti-Paul people are suggesting that the same “mainstream media” want to build up a Republican contender who can’t win.
The truth is that the media didn’t push Paul down when there was nothing good to say about him or pump him up now that there’s a positive poll or two to report. In both cases, they just did what you’d expect media to do related to any candidate. (I’m not even going to try to get into critiquing the way modern campaigns work and how they’re covered. I’m just saying they did what is expected by normal rules of coverage.)
I’m a big critic of the news media today, both the broader media and television news in particular. (Well, actually, I’d like you to turn your televisions off entirely.) But if you want to criticize the media, criticize them for the systemic problems. They’re not out to get you and your candidate, whoever he is. Even though every reporter and editor and producer has a bias of some sort — because they’re human beings — most of them are honestly trying to be fair. They sometimes get it wrong. They sometimes have competing issues to worry about — such as getting a story done on time with reduced staff and lower budgets — but they’re not out to get you.
Journalists don’t wake up each morning thinking about how to make you and your beliefs look bad. They wake up thinking about how to do their jobs and get more readers or more viewers. They’re just flawed human beings doing a tough job. Criticize the industry all you want — I certainly do — but criticize them for the things that actually do wrong, not your paranoid fantasies of what they’re trying to do to you.