Political News You Can Actually Use

Now this is what I'm talking about. Andy "Don't Call Me Andrew" Sullivan at Reuters actually digs into a candidate's stated policy goals and proposed actions, and looks at what would happen to the U.S. should Paul get elected. It's strange to be so excited at seeing what really should be the job, and Sullivan does have to frame the story within the horse-race format that the other 99% of political news stories use in election years. And all the information Sullivan presents isn't really arcane; it didn't require ProPublica-style investigation, and many of us already knew various pieces of Paul's whacky notions. (Let's leave aside the question of whether voters will and/or should make their choices based on such policy positions or horse-race data, and the chicken-and-egg of whether that's an effect or cause of the 99% horse-race coverage.)

But let's applaud even this collect-and-overview piece. Where are the accompanying reviews of the stated policy plans for all the other candidates? I bet each and every one has at least one "can you believe this?" stated position.

True, not Right (Part 2)

(Though I'm far more on Dean Starkman's side, I'll give in to Jeff Jarvis' trope of "iterative journalism" here. That'll teach me to dash something off in the WordPress interface, rather than using a text editor and forcing myself to revise between the cut and the paste.) In a recent interview with On the Media, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of Factcheck.org and Flackcheck.org, also gets a bit into the conceptualizing of the political TV ads that I bemoaned, though obliquely. And one of her quantitative claims might make me back away from my thoughts that the current state of ads is not just poor, but anti-democratic.

The focus of Jamieson's segment is on how watching the debates is good for you, in that the questioning could knock candidates loose from their proscribed talking points (of course, the first precept of being a politician is answering the questions you want to answer, not the one you're given, but the "batter up" of this is one of the reasons we watch). This is in opposition to the controlled and carefully staged medium of an ad. She also takes the example of the whole chorus line of Republican candidates responding to the hypothetical of a 10x spending cut/tax increase, or to "Obamacare"; of that mass mindset, she says, "you can't learn all of that in advertising".

But when Brooke asks whether she sees any value in political ads, Jamieson lets drop that "advertising, in general, contains accurate, not inaccurate statements." When Brooke -- and, I'm guessing, the rest of us -- expresses surprise, Jamieson replies, "That's historically true. And I tell you that having spent more hours than I'd care to count analyzing claim by claim in the ads." Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't serious deceptions, she adds. (I have to award her points for her "and that's why we need a lot of good journalism wrapped around this political process" plug. Full employment for journalists!)

As I wrote in the previous post, the major theories on voter choice in modern political science research tend to assume that potential voters act based on rational choice. Voters may be motivated to find the candidate or party that is the "nearest neighbor" on positions, or which candidate will "balance" the government, or who culturally is closest. These theories are not empirically well tested, and are vulnerable the same way economic theories based on the "rational actor" hypothesis are -- but the point is all rely on not only the voter collecting reasonably accurate information about the candidates, but that the voter has high confidence that he or she can collect reasonably accurate information about the candidates.

If these ads can dole out even bits of accurate information, as Jamieson suggests is true in the aggregate, I suppose I can live with their horrible production values, their smarm, their general suicide-inducing aura. If they even provide hooks for as-well-distributed journalistic annotations, they might serve an actual pro-democratic function (again, small-d democratic). But this requires not just institutional resistance to that Romney's staffer's promotion of the medium as "propaganda", and the small degree of righteousness to believe your production of an ad is to help the country, not to help Candidate A win.

True, not Right

The days of hard-drinking journalists (at least drinking on the job) are long over, but it's hard not to picture the anonymous "top operative" of the Romney campaign having to be plied by a few shots, in a dim corner of a motel bar, before he'd let go to the NY Times the following quote:

"First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business…. Ads are agitprop…. Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context…. All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art."

There's just something to the overly associative attempts at justification, of moving the context of the political ad (let alone this specific political ad), the undergraduate stabs and big words, coupled with the macho defensiveness one usually only sees in 22-year-old traders after some Ketel One and/or blow in a Wall St. afterhours club, that speaks to a slightly altered state of mind.

Not to mention the giant question of whether political ads really should be ads in the same way "buy our soap" ads are ads.

This summer I got to dive a bit into the political science literature around theories of how voters choose. The three big kahunas are proximity theory (voters pick a candidate with positions most closely matching their own), discounting theory (voters pick a candidate to balance ideological power in the government), and directional theory ("I've always voted for Party A, and never gonna vote for Party B"). As you can see, though these theoretical frameworks and assumptions at times overlap a bit and at times are, they carry the same base "rational actor" assumption we see causing such problems in economics. But let's put aside that weakness, along with the fact that none of these have been empirically studied in depth -- the point is that all would suggest the key information voters require for choice is on positions and ideology: where the candidate stands on Issues A-Z, and what course of action that candidate would follow if elected. Do you see any of that going on in political ads? Soap ads may make mention that the product will get your clothes clean, but what they really sell is some emotional connection -- and here is where I have the feeling the above political science theories break, especially in the U.S. system, and why I have the feeling that election tools such as voter advice applications will be problematic in the U.S. where they are catching on in Europe.

So, in a way, what that drunken operative blurted is true. These ads are propaganda. But he's not right, in his implication that damn it, since we're doing it this way, that's how it should be.

Buffalo Bill's Defunct

The other day on NPR's Talk of the Nation, a caller had to admit that an on-air guest had stolen his thunder; the guest had just said that the current Presidential race is more like a reality show than a campaign. But even the guest wasn't being entirely original. Jezebel was on it and noted TPM noting it, showing even Republican candidates (current and former) placing themselves in this narrative of narrativity. But those were just the explicit castings, and not the real problem -- news relies on narrative, after all. The real problem is that even the "good" news outlets have long implicitly and explicitly favored narrative drive over any other content. That "reality show" is overwriting "horse race" doesn't make "horse race" any better for our future.

Though my love for NPR can perhaps verge into the stalker-y, it frustrates me to no end that the Political Junkie and other coverage is perpetually stuck on who's up and who's down in polls, perception, points. And it's not just NPR: the horse race is the standard template for talking about politics no matter you choose as your most trusted name in news. There have been the odd chart on who would benefit and who would suffer if 9-9-9 somehow became the law of the land, but that's the exception. (And this bit of policy analysis was, ironically, enabled by the same excessive and unworkable oversimplifications of the plan; who's been digging into what tax burdens for the poor would look like under a Romney or Huntsman plan? Actually, not radically different in shape, just in scale.)

Ed over at Gin and Tacos implies that the desire for narrative might even be shaping the race, rather than the race shaping the narrative. The networks are so hungry to be able to present the conflict of a nail-biter, Ed says, might be what ballooned one poll results into a perception that Gingrich could actually be a viable candidate. Well, there has to be some other reason, right? It's not like Gingrich is a viable candidate.

Even the excellent Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism ends up with this as the foundation for their analyses. If you look at their recent study of how news media and blogs have treated the candidates, you can tease out that the rise or fall in how a candidate is covered is fueled by talk about their standings in the polls. The horse race is the CDO or CDS market driving the Dow and, like that bad situation, we're ignoring how solid or crappy the underlying mortgages (policies) are.

So the video introductions to the Republican debates on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and others look like nothing so much as the opening titles for any random season of "The Apprentice". What were they before? Perhaps more like an into to a title fight, with who's favored and who's the underdog. Seriously, that's hurting America, either way. At least, as some Americans seems to seriously desire a motivational speaker as their President, we're just being more honest about making it entertaining.