Archive for November 2nd, 2012

In his 1988 book Constructing the Political Spectacle, political scientist Murray Edelman argues that, because nonvoters are a larger political grouping in the US than any single political party, the media needs to use “much coercion, propaganda, and the portrayal of issues in terms that entertain, distort, and shock to extract a public response of any kind” (Edelman 1988:7). Further, he says that the media isn’t concerned with facts, but with perpetuating competing ideologies.  If the media was worried about facts, he says, “false meanings would be discredited in time and a consensus upon valid ones would emerge” (Edelman 1988:3).

I was reminded of Edelman’s work while reading a Deadspin post about critics of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog. Discussing this criticism, David Roher states:

Scarborough’s comments illustrate the central and most pernicious bias in political media: not toward one candidate or another, but toward a toss-up. Forecasters like Silver and Wang strive for precision in addition to accuracy. If accuracy is how close the average dart is to the bullseye, precision is how close each dart was to the others. We don’t yet know whether they’ve been accurate, but we can already safely say that they’ve been precise, as their predictions heading into November are essentially the same as they were months ago.

The political media hate precision: No one tunes in to a boring horse race. The volatility of day-to-day polling allows them to explain how the contest (in which, till recently, no actual votes had yet been cast) has been lost and won and lost again with each news cycle—an endless series of decisive revelations and foundational truths about the candidates or the public. If the narrative had followed Silver’s and Wang’s graphs, there would have been little to no hubbub over Bain’s outsourcing, “You didn’t build that,” the 47 percent, or the first debate. And what fun would that be? Both the Romney and Obama camps are happy to play into the toss-up narrative, as Obama needs his presumed majority to actually go to the polls on election day, and Romney wants to give his base confidence and hope. It’s the rare thing that everyone can agree on this year.

In five days the election will be over but the debates over the same old political issues – tax cuts, abortion, military spending, health care, etc. – will undoubtedly continue, thanks in part to the political spectacle.

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