Monday, October 20, 2008

Top Troubling Tropes of Campaign '08

October 20, 2008

Corporate media coverage of election 2008 has fallen into the well-documented pattern (Extra!, 5-6/08) of reporting on the election as if it were a horse-race rather than a democratic process in which real issues were at stake. Not only do journalists organize the election story around the question--not terribly helpful to voters--of who's up and who's down, they largely base their evaluation of the race on shallow image-based narratives that the media construct themselves: Barack Obama is an "elitist" who might not "get the way we live" (Extra!, 7-8/08), while John McCain is a straight-talking "maverick" (Extra!, 5-6/08). Though these tropes are treated by establishment news outlets as self-evident, they usually fail to stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

More often than not, those narratives do little to serve the needs of the citizens whose votes will decide who is in the White House next year. FAIR has compiled a list of the top tropes of 2008 that, while by no means exhaustive, is a collection of some of the most enduring and problematic themes of the current campaign. The full article on these troubling tropes is available at:

Here are some of the highlights:

1. John McCain, Straight-Talking Maverick
Despite a recent voting record that makes him one of the Senate's most conservative lawmakers, the press has clung fiercely to the notion that, as U.S. News & World Report put it, "McCain is nothing if not a maverick."

2. Barack Obama, Elitist Snob
The media have singled out Senator Barack Obama, a multi-racial former community organizer raised by a single mom as an "elitist," rather than his Republican opponent, who is the son and grandson of four-star admirals and the husband of a multimillionaire, with New York Times columnist David Brooks going so far as to question whether Obama "know[s] anything about the way American people actually live."

3. The 'Smearing' of Sarah Palin
The nomination of Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin has given right-wing pundits the opportunity to perfect their well-worn technique of "working the refs" by complaining about liberal media bias in order to cow journalists into backing off.

4. John McCain, 'National Security Pro'
Despite the fact that Sen. John McCain's judgments and predictions about the key foreign policy issue of our time--the Iraq War--have frequently been way off base, it is widely accepted in the media that McCain has "vast foreign policy expertise and credibility on national security," as NBC anchor Brian Williams put it.

5. Shifting to the Right Is 'Smart Politics'
For years, the media's advice to Democratic politicians has remained the same: Move to the right to win. Much of the media enthusiasm for Obama has come when the candidate has made real or perceived rightward shifts, on issues like FISA wiretapping or trade policy.

6. Obama Wins, Sharpton/Jackson Lose
Since Obama emerged on the national political stage, some media figures have looked favorably at his ability to sideline African-American political figures the pundits just don't like. As Peter Beinart put it in the New Republic (2/5/07): "For many white Americans, it's a twofer. Elect Obama, and you not only dethrone George W. Bush, you dethrone Sharpton, too."

7. No War (in Campaign Coverage)!
With the media having adopted the notion that the troop "surge" in Iraq has worked, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have all but disappeared from the media's campaign coverage.

8. False Balance
Media "fact-check" reporting often bends over backwards to choose an equal number of falsehoods or distortions from each side--which can give voters a misleading impression of the prevalence of political lying when one side is obviously more guilty of exaggerations.

9. Misreading the Polls
Corporate journalists are notoriously obsessed with largely meaningless horserace polls that attempt to predict the outcome of elections; at the same time, they seem to have little interest in using polls for the one purpose they could actually serve--to check their own speculations about what people are thinking.

10. Fundraising Double Standards
Obama faced a significant backlash from the press over his decision not to accept public financing, but reporters were far less interested in the details of McCain's campaign fundraising.

11. Obama's Dubious Associates
When it comes to Obama's dubious "associates," it would seem no connection is too peripheral--or even nonexistent--to merit national media attention.

Full article is available at:

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