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The Responsibility of the Press in the Election

Will it be fair and full information, or the same old celebrity pap?

November 2015

The press coverage of the current U.S. presidential election campaign suggests that neither print nor electronic news media have deviated from their everyday practice of "celebrity" reporting: reporting that which sells. I argue that the press must have a special and particularly responsible role in elections, beyond their usual profit motive. The Supreme Court, by its skewing of elections toward the well-connected, has made this role crucial.
Everything we thought about elections in the U.S. changed in 2010, when the Supreme Court (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) held by a 5 to 4 vote that the FEC could no longer limit the money spent in support of candidates in federal (and by extension – state and local) elections. The results of this widely criticized decision have been predictable – practically unlimited amounts of money have been poured into the election campaigns by major donors who want influence over their candidates. This has had two related and disastrous consequences: first, elections have suddenly become far more expensive, as each candidate tries to match the opposition's fund-raising; and second, politicians have become more dependent than ever on the wealthy mega-donor, individual or corporate. There can hardly be any doubt that this condition is directly corrupting, as the politicians' sugar-daddies are now calling the shots on public policy. The politicians will dance like marionettes in the strings of their handlers, to ensure funding again for their next election.

The role of the press in election campaigns has become critical after the Citizens United decision. The press, which has always had a key role in informing voters about the candidates, is now the only remaining potential source of reasonably objective news and analysis. With the vastly increased amount of intentionally misleading "information" put out by the campaigns, and with the candidate "debates" being controlled and trivialized, both by the national party HQ or by tendentious cable TV sponsors, the press is the only vehicle for posing probing questions to the candidates, questions that the campaign literature and ads will never touch, as well as critiquing their stated program and forcing them to address difficult issues. The voters can't do this, and if the press doesn't, no one will. In that case, we all lose.

Does the press have a special responsibility to furnish citizens with fair information in elections? I say "Yes". The U.S., like other countries, has "press laws" that give the press special access, privileges, and protections. For that, the press owes the public fair and full information. At no time is this more crucial than in election campaigns, because there is no other unbiased voice in the deafening clamor of special-interest verbiage.

There is another reason that the Citizen United decision has made the role of the press more crucial. Under the Supreme Court's new law, the candidates who can convince the deepest pockets of a favorable reception for the donor's ideas – in other words, the candidates who can be bought – get their message out via paid advertising. Candidates who eschew "big money" donations with strings lag far behind in the ability to get their message across. If it is not the charge of the press to give fair and equal coverage to each of the candidates, where will the candidates who say No to the corruption of influence money get their hearing? They won't be heard, and the election becomes a charade.

Unfortunately, the media, both print and electronic, have not taken the idea of fairness to heart, so far in this election season. The competitive nature of "News" has led most news outlets to continue their ordinary standard of news reporting, which is based on celebrity, scandal, disaster, and usually surficial and tendentious coverage. They seem to have forgotten the art of objective analysis and fairness, which in an election means very simply giving equal treatment to all the candidates.

I'll mention an example of what seems to me typical press coverage, this from a Democratic candidates' forum in Iowa a few months ago. The Iowa organizers had been meticulously fair in giving each of their five candidates an equal fifteen minutes to talk. I read the Washington Post's report of this event the next morning.

The Post article, written by Dan Balz, described the talks by the candidates in 22 short paragraphs of similar length. Hillary Clinton's speech was described in 9 paragraphs, Bernie Sanders' in 6, Martin O'Malley's in 5, and James Webb and Lincoln Chafee each in one paragraph. There was room in the article for Clinton's jokes about Donald Trump's hair, but not for Webb's views on judicial reform or economic fairness. The article appeared to have been written to entertain and gossip about the celebrities, and not at all for the expected purpose of informing the public about what the candidates had to offer. The non-celebrity candidates got essentially no attention.

In this (typical) example the Post's article reflected what the Supreme Court may have had in mind with the Citizens United decision: to those who have shall be given. Those perfectly viable candidates who depend on a fair press to get their views across are stymied by an apparently complicit press that rewards those who have given unknown promises of future influence in return for mega-donations.

Is there any reason to hope that "The Press" will in time appreciate their unique role under the new election rules, and resolve to follow a standard of fairness where they actually provide the citizenry with full and fair information, and do not treat the candidates according to their celebrity status, or according to the wealth of their campaigns? Sadly, I'm far from sanguine about this miracle coming to pass.

The alternative is a future where the media continue on their present course, where even in elections – the most sacred act of our democracy – it's still all about celebrity: if you've got it, you get coverage; if you don't you're out of luck. This future represents a frightening reification of the Supreme Court's stated principle in Citizens United, that the more money you've got, the greater your right to "free speech".

© 2015 H. Paul Lillebo

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