By Michael Getler
January 25, 2008
Welcome to another Ombudsman's Mailbag. This week the inbox was filled mostly with e-mail from viewers critical of, and tired of, the so-called "horse race" journalism that goes into reporting who is, or seems to be, ahead in the competition for the presidential nominations. And several viewers also have had their fill of the racial overtones that have been thrust into this year's campaign. So the clever one-word headline at the top of this column seemed especially appropriate in capturing both of these issues.
I'd like to have coined the "horseracism" term myself, but it came to my attention in a column posted Thursday, Jan. 24, by Jack Shafer, who writes the sharp and lively "Press Box" column for the online magazine Slate. Shafer, in turn, credited it to Brian Montopoli, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about political coverage in 2004. At the time, Montopoli was writing only about the political horse race, "the practice of reporters and their editors obsessing over polls and process instead of substance." Now, "horseracism" has taken on a double meaning; the traditional coverage of who is leading into the stretch, and the added factor this year of the other kind of race.
Shafer's column, by the way, provides an excellent look at why, despite traditional reader or viewer complaints, you can't divorce the horse race from political coverage, and also makes the point that there is indeed a great deal of material about substance and candidates' positions on issues available to citizens these days. "If you're not an informed political consumer this year," he writes, "you have nobody to blame but yourself."
That sounds right to me, although viewers have a right to expect that individual news organizations, and especially PBS, have a responsibility to make their offerings as comprehensive and substantive as possible, and you can hardly blame people who are upset over the heavy dose of horse-race coverage versus substance, and over the insertion of race into this year's Democratic campaign.
I don't want to get into the habit of defending PBS, although ombudsmen should do that when appropriate, but it still seems to me that The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer — which is the focus of criticism and frustration among those who write to me to complain — presents the fullest and most in-depth approach to the daily political news and the surrounding issues that one can find regularly on television. That doesn't mean there are not failures and missteps. But during the course of a campaign it seems to me PBS presents the best cumulative body of work within which substantive positions as well as frequent snapshots of the horse race are aired.
I do have one suggestion, however. That would be to produce a segment soon on some program that examines the role that former President Bill Clinton is playing in this campaign. This should involve presidential historians or veteran political reporters, not spokespersons for Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama. We are all witnessing a historic campaign with a woman and an African American as serious contenders for the Democratic nomination. But it doesn't stop there. We are also witnessing a historic, high-profile role in the primaries played out almost daily by a former president in support of his wife, and as a challenger of those challenging her. What do the historians think about that role? What is really happening here? Is it in keeping with the anything-goes nature of constantly evolving American politics? Or does this go too far? Are we watching something unfold that we need to think about and talk about more intensely?
One of the letter writers this week (the first one in the sample that follows) obviously doesn't like the role Bill Clinton is playing. Others may think it is fine. But this situation is unprecedented and seems worthy of far more exploration than it has received.
Here Are the Letters
I just don't understand why there hasn't been an uproar, nationwide, over the way former President Bill Clinton has been crossing the boundaries of common sense — and of, I think, decency. Who is it that's running for president, anyway? And can anyone believe that he won't be trying to run things — and probably running them — were Hillary to become our president? Bill Clinton was once one of my favorite human beings. How can he not know better than this? He has no reasonable public role in her campaign — certainly not the aggressive one he's taking.
Diana Strelow, Portsmouth, VA
My experience in writing KQED (San Francisco) tells me they are much too busy to consider viewer input. To wit: writing the KQED president results in a form e-mail that essentially says, "We get so many responses that we can't respond to you." I find the KQED organization very involved in themselves and their own province. Why don't they take away the email addresses and be honest?
On the primaries, I feel that coverage of each little state caucus goes far beyond my need to know as a viewer. I need information to make a choice of candidates, not to try to predict how the vote will come out before it actually happens. That's what campaign managers need to know, not I, the general public. KQED talking heads just go on and on about the future. A little is entertaining, but a lot is totally boring. I don't need to know the run-up to Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. I only need to know the running totals leading to the party selection.
Allen Price, Mountain View, CA
While PBS is not as guilty as the commercial media, I am concerned that so much of the coverage of the presidential primary races is focused on the horse race at the expense of the issues. Frankly, I am not interested in what this poll or that poll is predicting about who will win the race. I am not particularly interested in who is ahead or behind today or by how much. What I am interested in hearing is what are the positions and ideas being presented by the candidates. You are the professional analysts. Talk to me about who SHOULD win based on their policies and ideas for the future of America not about who is ahead or behind according to the polls; more substance and less gossip. AND I want to hear about and from ALL the candidates on the ballot. Don't you choose who deserves to be heard based on some arbitrary criteria of your own. I believe that I have a RIGHT to hear from and about EVERY candidate that is rightfully on the ballot. I fear that my media is not serving me very well in this election cycle.
Michael Monahan, Yakima, WA
This is about the NewsHour: You are getting like the worst commercial TV stations. You, too, want a horse race among the candidates and emphasize all disagreement, with a happy smile. The latest example is today (Jan. 24). The voters you interviewed talked about the candidates, individually, and why they supported one or the other. When you took over the comments, what did you talk about: only the disagreements between Clinton and Obama, race, and comments you found appropriate about Bill Clinton. Try to elevate, not lower the discussion level.
Port Jefferson, NY
The media is NOT to blame for this "abomination" of negative, rhetorical accusations between the Clintons and Obama. In my opinion, with this kind of self-serving finger-pointing ad nauseum (for which the media IS to blame — because they give it credence by airing it over and over and over again) these two candidates have lost their credibility as reasonable and fair-minded leaders of the free world. I have seen what I had desperately hoped not to — that neither of them are ethically grounded enough to represent the American people as a true leader who is thoughtfully disciplined and judiciously reflective. Who speaks on issues of importance to our people, our country and the world, instead of issues that feed his/her own personal ego and supposed importance.
Kaye Wergedal, Oscoda, MI
On Tuesday night, the Lehrer broadcast 10 minutes of Clinton and Obama and their accusations of each other during the debate. This was one incident during the hour and a half debate. One of the major reasons that I listen to The NewsHour is to get the facts and a balanced view of the issues. I am appalled that the NewsHour chose to lower its standards to sensational journalism and join with the mediocrity that passes for media coverage. Surely, you could have shown some of the discussion among the candidates rather than the 10 minutes of garbage that you did show.
Cynthia Redman, Windsor, CT
Was Oprah to Blame?
There is a lot of finger-pointing going on regarding the impact of the length of interviews and the individuals chosen to discuss the racial issues during the Democratic primaries. What bothers me most is that there is very little reflection on when this frenzy began. Is Jim or Gwen afraid to explore the role that Oprah played? Before her endorsement, the Democrats were united in their stand; after her endorsement, they were divided. Now, I would find that discussion more interesting than endlessly stirring the pot.
I am disappointed with the NewsHour reporting of the Democratic Debate. In the same lock step approach of the mainstream media, the whole segment on 1/22/08 focused on the heated interchange between Clinton and Obama with the obvious purpose of fanning the flames rather than understanding the process. I would hope the program could take a more constructive roll than playing "Lets you and him fight."
Frank Deits, Ridgecrest, CA
PBS plus all the other liberal media goes on and on about racism in the Democratic campaign. Why is race such a huge issue with your reporting? There are many issues that deserve more air-time than the continual blah-blah-blah about race. Let the immature candidates play their race/gender cards and report worthwhile news.
Jane B., Richmond, VA
I am sorely bored by all of the to-do about the primaries. It's as though nothing else of importance was happening around the world or the US. I'm sorry so little time and space is given over to Iraq. We lack a great deal in the US, many worthwhile matters are not discussed — the economy is in the sad condition we find it largely because the Iraq war is siphoning off money and energy that should be given over to problems in the US. The problems with the economy are driven by Iraq, yet the media acts as though these issues are independent of one another. Why? And why so little on news in the US and the world, and so much on the 'horserace'?
Tillie Krieger, Eugene, OR
I am so saddened once again to hear Judy Woodruff's segment on the South Carolina Democratic race. Anyone with a psychological background understands her subtle manner in presenting her bias for Obama. When she shows visual props of the four places Obama was at and then President Clinton came a day later, inferring Obama once again is the victim, it implies mean spirited tactics by Clinton. She proceeds without emphasis to state of course Clinton was at other places before going to the same destinations as Obama which numbered a total of 14 places. This statement was easy to miss if you were not listening carefully.
Paula Jensen, Post Falls, ID
Where are John and Ron?
I watched the Jim Lehrer Hour last night (Jan. 18), and there was not ONE mention of John Edwards. It was as if he did not exist, let alone actually be a Presidential candidate. It is sickeningly obvious to me that the entire media is ignoring all but the big money candidates. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, being the recipients of millions of dollars from major corporations also get the vast majority of press coverage. Funny how that works. I expect that of mainstream media but I thought that PBS had a higher bar to attain to! John Edwards is the only one with a real message that seriously addresses the core of our country's problems . . . one of which is the corporate influence on our government. And he is the only major candidate to not accept money from these entities. Today he had a dismal loss in Nevada, where he was vastly outspent by Clinton and Obama. Ask me if I am surprised!! Where is the fair coverage of John Edwards in the media to get his message out when the vast majority of the press is only focusing on the two corporate-sponsored Democratic candidates!!??
On Jan. 22, I listened to the discussion of the South Carolina debate on station KQED. I was disappointed, and then angered that the moderator and guests all discussed John Edwards' comments mostly in terms of his strategy of taking Obama or Clinton's side!! Only one comment credited him with independent substance. The moderator obviously had the attitude that Edwards was irrelevant, and steered the conversation that way. This is another example of media interviewing on the basis of their pre-assumptions.
Sen. Edwards was the only one with well thought-out, meaningful programs on the economy instead of sales and sound-bites, but as in the debate, he was given little time or credit. Edwards suggested investing in INFRASTRUCTURE to create jobs and value. It worked in the last economic meltdown. Is it not worth listening to — let alone discussing? There is so much to do, that will save us energy and resources and reduce costs in the future, as well as employing people now!
Tania Levy, San Rafael, CA
PBS in the Lehrer report continues its patently dishonest reporting on the presidential primaries and candidates. Ron Paul raised almost $2,000,000 today and possibly more. Who are these people who are contributing to his candidacy? None, and I mean none, of the Republican candidates have this level of fundraising. Dr. Paul also took second in Nevada behind Romney. He has beaten Giuliani in all the primaries so far and yet PBS talks about Giuliani extensively.
Peter Courtenay Stephens, Hayes, VA
And Who Is Watching the Hen House?
Until reading your column, again, this morning of Jan. 18, 2008, I thought the Clinton/Obama civil rights/race issue was such an absurd, incompetent distraction from real issues it wasn't even worth commenting on. However, after reading several of the viewers' comments, and Linda Winslow's response, I sense it to be this senior American citizen's duty attempt to provide some additional perspectives on the subject matter, and the real issues.
Especially with the latest reports on the failing economy, and Bush's 'Band Aid' (a mere fraction of what's been wasted in Iraq) for an old wound, reopened and enlarged with bi-partisan support administration after administration, the only worthwhile Media coverage (PBS' included) of the candidates, thus far, in vain (through no fault of their own), is that which allows Ron Paul to repeat how unconstitutional our government currently is, Dennis Kucinich to call for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney for the war in Iraq and John Edwards to blast U.S. corporations for their irresponsible and destructive roles in diminishing America, for mere profit. It appears the Media, PBS included, is sorely in need of a reality check, if not a brain transplant.
If it wasn't for their particular party affiliations (and requisite subsequent servitude), I think a Ron Paul/Dennis Kucinich/John Edwards ticket might be a good idea, for a reasonably prudent Media to point out. But, to the public, in real time, how can the opinion of a mere, lay senior American viewer possibly compare with that of a national Media choosing to dwell upon whether Lyndon Johnson, or Martin Luther King, did more for civil rights in America, back in the sixties. Except for myself, and the three candidates mentioned above, just who is watching the fox that is watching the hen house?
A simple, literal interpretation of the U.S. Constitution tells us there is only one political agenda; that which is prescribed in the Preamble. There is no Republican agenda; there is no Democratic agenda; there is only the one agenda; to obey, enforce and amend the Constitution (if necessary) on behalf of the 'We the People of the United States.' The majority of Americans being working-class, that means on behalf of the working-class, primarily. If that is too difficult, or too much, to ask the presidential candidates and the Media in 2008 to comprehend, then, America is surely on a 'fast track' to oblivion, with even PBS' help.
Charles Shaver, Westfield, WI