Iowa reporting shows how journalism fails us

Climate change was my top issue in 2000 - still ignored today

David Sirota has it right in Salon when he says that cash-strapped news organizations are squandering precious resources covering the Iowa caucuses in as trivial a way as possible:

. . . for all the faux conflict and chest thumping of the cable shows, and all the references to “Boys on the Bus” nostalgia among print reporters, political journalism today is now the mirror opposite of adversarial. It’s about people who preen around calling themselves ‘reporters,’ but who are in reality just glorified royal courtiers simply transmitting press releases and spoon-fed stories from the candidates and their staffs.

Covering the first Republican presidential nominating event like a horse race is troubling enough. But when analysis consists of statisticians like Chuck Todd of NBC/MSNBC trying to persuade us that thinking can be reduced to counting, we learn less than nothing from the “scientific” punditry. The numbers the networks don’t want you to ponder, however, is how they can justify pretending that the eight votes that separate Mitt Romney from Rick Perry (30,015 versus 30,007) – or even the roughly 4,000 votes that separate Ron Paul from the “winner” – mean anything.

A total of 122,215 mostly old, mostly Christian, mostly conservative, almost exclusively white folks in Iowa had the chance last night to vent their distaste for President Obama and his “uppity” (Rush Limbaugh) wife with the “large posterior” (Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner). The folks in the polling places without walkers were the college students “wasting” their vote on Ron Paul because of his stand against our endless wars or his promise to legalize marijuana (or both).

Anyone who thinks a handful of Iowans have a clue about how to govern a country of 312 million should be governed should be forced to smoke more weed in the hope it would make it harder to them to find their way to the ballot box in the future.

Roughly the same number of folks showed up this past winter at the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, to protest Governor Scott Walker’s plans to end collective bargaining, but only Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC seemed to care. The same for the paltry coverage of the Occupy movement, which all too often focused on the police overreaction and not the substance of argument that 99% of our people need to dismantle the power of the 1%.

Yet this is the first year of the post-Citizens United political process, where corporations ruled by the 1% can now spend unfettered millions on political ads without revealing their identities. The pro-Mitt Romney SuperPAC Restore Our Future outspent the Romney campaign nearly two to one ($2.8 million in nasty ads aimed mostly at Newt Gingrich compared to $1.5 million in Romney campaign ads designed to persuade you Mitt’s the second coming of Ronald Reagan).

Restore Our Future has hired Larry McCarthy to do the ads against Newt. McCarthy, who is also the head of the California Taxpayers Association, was the Lee Atwater protege who made the infamous Willie Horton ads.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews has gone apoplectic about how the Citizens United decision allows candidates like Romney to recite the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” while the supposedly unaffiliated SuperPACs pull hit jobs on any viable opponent. In the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, 45% of the ads on state TV were anti-Gingrich ads paid for by these dedicated assassins who never even left their fingerprints on their dirty work.

Do you want to see what this group will do to our first black president? I don’t.

Allowing Mitt to substitute reading song lyrics for explaining his increasingly radical-right positions on pressing issues of the day isn’t journalism, it’s pandering for ratings. Since half of our electorate believes in angels, news organizations today realize that they make more money when they avoid alienating the ignorant with anything resembling mere facts.

Reporters instead remain “objective” by pretending the science does not demand that we act before we reach a cataclysmic greenhouse-gas tipping point that will doom succeeding generations to misery and strife as they compete for the basics of food and water. Journalists find it easier to waste time discussing when Rick Perry will drop out than to explore how politicians can promise to bring back manufacturing jobs when we must compete in a global economy where other countries crush burgeoning union movements and pollute the environment with impunity. In an era when peak oil means that the prevailing economic growth model falters every time our unsustainable consumer economy perks up and gas prices rise, reporters instead allow Michele Bachmann to promise she will bring back $2 gas without responding with hysterical laughter.

In 2000, as the Green Party candidate for the 8th Congressional district in Michigan, I ran on a three-point platform:

    GLOBAL WARMING – We may be in danger of triggering an irreversible, runaway greenhouse effect. Instead of squandering tax dollars on Star Wars that merely enriches stockholders, we should be investing in research to learn how to save the planet for future generations. Do you hear any so-called “mainstream” candidates dealing with this all-important issue?
    UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE – When my first husband died of cancer 30 years ago, I counted on Teddy Kennedy to deliver on universal health so that others wouldn’t have to do what I did — drop out of college and beg for low-level jobs just to keep us insured. Yet here we are three decades later and the kinds of jobs I held then don’t even offer insurance today. You call that progress?
    END THE WAR ON DRUGS – We know what it takes to make our society safer — drug treatment on demand, strict gun laws, community collaborations, a strong social safety net. We should reserve costly prison space for the truly violent. Let’s start by legalizing medical marijuana and industrial hemp!

If I were running today, I would still focus on these issues but also join Ron Paul in ending our international adventurism. But the way in which the media ignores Paul’s message shows that “objectivity” does not extend to treating progressive issues like ending wars, legalizing drugs and restoring our civil rights as issues worth mentioning.

In my case, the only question reporters asked me was whether I was a “spoiler.” Not one asked me to explain why I thought global warming was a big deal.

A relentless focus on process over substance is more than laziness, as Sirota alleges. It’s part of a profound corporate contempt for serious discussion about how we should live going forward in this complex world. People say they are hungry for serious discussion, fresh ideas and real analysis. There are thousands of bloggers out here telling us more of what we need to know. The challenge for all of us is to find the wheat among the chaff.


Salon’s Hack List highlights what’s wrong with today’s political press

Mark Halperin cashes a paycheck for squandering his powerful platform at Time magazine

Salon magazine’s prolific Alex Pareene has finally rolled out
2011’s 20 awfulest political journalists, giving this year’s top honors to Time magazine’s Mark Halperin, calling him “both fixated solely on the horse race and also uniquely bad at analyzing the horse race.”

Halperin is the prototype of the “objective” journalist who prides himself on refusing to comment on anything he sees. Race baiting? Distortions? Outright falsehoods? Let’s instead look at those recent poll numbers that show Ron Paul rising in Iowa.

By treating politics as a sporting event rather than as a contest of ideas with consequences, Halperin squanders the opportunity to use his powerful platform at Time magazine and on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to promote the kind of informed discussion that could make voting more than a tribal exercise in doing what it takes so our team wins. The only time Halperin displayed something resembling passion was the time on Morning Joe that he called Obama a “dick.”

I was actually hoping that the top-of-the-bottom slot would be awarded to Erin Burnett, the latest anchor to fill the ever-changing musical chair in CNN’s unstable 7 p.m. time slot. Pareene awarded her fourth place, acknowledging her spectacularly trivial and patronizing coverage of Occupy Wall Street as her hackiest moment.

Is this relentlessly perky free-market Barbie manufactured by CNBC by way of Goldman Sachs the future face of broadcast news? Heaven help us.

While I was bemoaning the current state of political punditry in the United States, I happened to pick up the year-end double issue of Rolling Stone. In addition to the stellar reporting of Matt Taibbi and Tim Dickinson, the issue featured excerpted quotes from an interview with former NASA scientist Jim Hansen, who has been relentless in trying to persuade the mainstream media to cover climate change as something other than a manufactured controversy. Here’s a few sentences on Obama’s record:

He allowed the usual cast of characters to carry the ball, and they came up with the cockamamie scheme called cap and trade with offsets, in which big banks would be the biggest winners and Big Coal and Big Oil and Big Utilities all were given their share. And the public would get screwed. Energy prices would go up, and there would be almost no impact on solving the climate problem. By staying disengaged, Obama completely blew the chance to really be a great president. He could have changed history.”

The problem isn’t just the voices we hear but those we don’t hear or don’t hear enough of – Jim Hansen, Naomi Klein, Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich. Chomsky is frequently featured in the European press, but he says that he often finds himself disinvited on those rare occasions he is offered a platform, even by supposedly progressive news outlets such as PBS. Media moguls often allow incendiary critiques fromthe right, but not the left. (So long, Keith Olbermann.)

The opportunity that the Internet provides us in circumventing commercial media could allow the Occupy movement to create a new online citizen journalism based on providing the 99% the news it wants and needs. Email me at lansingonline AT with your ideas and input into how this new media should function.