Benny's World

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Peepshow: The Oversensationalism of a Non-Issue

EENR bloggers are discussing today whether or not JRE's latest admission to an extramarital affair, as well as John McCain's own admission years ago are issues for voters. The diary post at EENR was posited more like either a Lou Dobbs (CNN) question (as was the diary about Immigration a couple of weeks ago)--or could have played into the pundit football that Shannity and Colmes discussed last night on Fixed Noise Network. Neither diary provided any research from surveys, polls, articles etc, to have neither a decent debate--just as Lou Dobbs nor the Shouting Newsbusters do, but instead rely on conjecture and not inviting political communications scholars to comment on this issue. Instead, the EENR diary is more akin to the traditional media in the sense after the Senate acquitted Bill Clinton in 1999, a Pew Survey revealed that the public believed that "news organizations were driving controversies" rather than reporting the news by covering the personal and ethical behavior of public figures. To me, it is a public airing of Edwards’s bloggers and supporters to talk about how they feel about the travesty rather than discussing a complex issue.

My title is taken a little from a book I just picked up today entitled Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal, written by well known experts in the political communications field. I will be borrowing heavily from that work, articles, and other comments in books.

If I understood the question, which I am rephrasing: is a politician's candidate's extramarital affair an issue in itself to voters, I cannot conclude that it is; the real issue is should the media make it an issue? They do so for various reasons. An issue has too many layers to be boiled down into a simple question.

First, Pew Research on People and the Press did a poll last year about politicians and their indiscretions in February 2007 when they were looking at all of the candidates ab0ut personal character. The majority of those polled, especially those who identify themselves as Democrats, do not think an extramarital affair makes a different in casting their vote for president. This mirrors the survey I mentioned earlier. The media's substance coverage of the 1988-2004 presidential elections has been steadily declining for some of the networks. CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News were the worst, according to Stephen Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter in their book, The Nightly News Nightmare: Television Coverage of the Presidential Elections, 1988-2004, published last year. In that same work, the authors found that the negative tone, especially from Fox News, was around 60%, with the three other networks ranged from 58-49% in 2004.

What does matter though about extra-marital affairs involving politicians, according to the authors of Peepshow, is the context and timing? From the Guardian:

Such circumstances matter, experts say, and not only the politician's voter base but also his or her image and how far away the next election is.

"Much has to do with the politician and how they react to the story," says Kyle Kreider, professor of political science at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "If the politician appears callous or indifferent to the 'sin,' the public usually does not give the politician a pass. However, if the politician [admits] to it and appears remorseful, the public now is quick to forgive."

Source: The Guardian, 2007.

Another layer in the issue mix is if the politician is at celebrity status or very high profile. In the case of John Edwards, who was covered very favorably in 2004, this became the case as he aligned himself with celebrities himself in the last election. Why do politicians do this? Darrell West at Brown University posits this observation:

In this situation, it is difficult for politicians to raise money and build public support. They simply do not have the credibility necessary for political persuasion. It no longer is enough for them to make particular claims. They need to hitch themselves to people who have higher credibility than they themselves do.

For this reason, politicians draw on sources from outside the political realm. They need individuals who are considered more trustworthy and less partisan, and who have high credibility with the general public.

Athletes are one example of high credibility sources that politicians love to draw on as are popular singers, actors, and musicians. Because they come from outside the political world, these celebrities represent a valuable resource for politicians. Their fame attracts press coverage and campaign contributors, and their accomplishments from outside the political world allow politicians to piggyback on their high credibility with voters.

Source: Celebrity Culture in America, downloaded from this site: Inside Politics.

Of course though, Edwards wasn't as favorably covered this time around since he was considered to be "angry" and touting issues no one wanted to hear about, which is the growing disconnect between government and the pocketbooks of the working poor and the sliding middle class.

Since last Friday, Edwards has had more negative publicity than any publicity from the cable networks? Why? Larry Sabato, one of the authors of Peepshow noted in 1991 that competitive pressures have more to do with the media's reporting of salacious stories than predictable:

Scandal and sex do indeed sell well-a great deal better than dispassionate policy issues. Some of "Nightline's" highest ratings were achieved for shows featuring Jim and Tammy Baaker. The same could be said the media's handling of Donna Rice in Gary Hart's travails..."

Sources: I noticed the above quote first in Images, Scandals and Communication Strategies of the Clinton Presidency, 2003, edited by Robert Denton and Rachel Holloway; quote by Sabato is from his 1991 Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics.

Fast forward to the past week: Cable Networks need ratings to boost the potential for ad revenues, which are slow at this time of year when Obama is on vacation and NBC has the lock on viewership for the Olympics. Edwards' extramarital affair has been over sensationalized--both by the Networks, the tabloids, and the bloggers.

As Sabato, Stencil, and Lichter (Sabato and Lichter the more prolific in research) concluded from their Peep Show Chapter on "The Verdict":

The public itself has little time or interest in modern politics. By focusing so much attention on the personal lives of public servants, the press squanders what little chance it has to enage the electorate, to remind voters about the connections between public policy and their own personal lives....If the coverage of personal politics dominates the news, then the public learns less about what matters that our to be foremost in their minds when they vote. The less informed voters are when they woalk into their polling places, the great the chance they will elect people who should not be in public office. The election of a real political cad or soundrel would be the most tragic and ironic consequence of a media process that is intended to protect the public from such a decision.

Peepshow, p98-99.

When I learned the EENR diary was going up, I was very unhappy about it, especially as more allegations were being flung at John and Elizabeth Edwards as it was last night. I respect their privacy and what I think about it privately is something that I'm choosing not to share on this blog at present; it is between me and my friends. If I want to engage in a Lou Dobbs, Dan Abrams, Chris Matthews, or David Gregory panel--in other words--the cable networks who are covering this ad nausea while NBC is enjoying the ratings from the Olympics, and Obama is on vacation--I can watch them beat up John and Elizabeth instead. But I probably won't learn anything more from those shows or from other bloggers' opinions than I would surfing the Net or getting more information from my friends via e-mail.

EENR blog has prided itself in being more about the issues than about personalities.

But not today.

Update: Speaking of oversensationalism, I heard Rush Limbaugh made some nasty, petty comments about Elizabeth Edwards. Keith Olbermann had a word or two to say about that. Thank you, Keith. (h/t Poligirl)

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  • While I agree personally that whether someone cheats or not (and subsequently lies about it) is of a personal nature, the MSM narrative right now, as seen in Andrea Mitchell's statement just this morning is trying to make it an issue.

    Many MSMs and even other Dems and of course the opposing party are saying that this is an issue.

    We may not like what they are doing, but we don't always get to choose what gets made out to be an issue. and we should talk about if it is and why it should or shouldn't be in a discussion based issues diary.

    that is the issue at hand in the diary today on the EENR. what is being discussed in the threads of that diary is is it an issue? what kind of issue is it? is it simply a personal issue or is it an issue that reflects on fitness for the presidency? or a cabinet office for that matter?

    if it is an issue, what makes it an issue? why is it even being toyed around with as an issue, especially in today's age of politicians lying?

    and why only does this seem to be an issue with Edwards and not with McCain. is there a double standard?

    these are all very pertinent questions to discuss. sure, no discussion is going to be perfect, but whether or not this should be considered an issue is apropos of a discussion thread - an issues discussion thread.

    and it's even more pertinent at the EENR, which is one of the places most affected by the whole story. Seems like that would be a great place to discuss its validity as an issue.

    just my 2 cents...

    --poligirl :D

    By Blogger poligirl, at 1:35 PM  

  • Since your post, Poligirl, I reframed the question to be that I think that needs to be asked: why should the media make this a voting issue? The rest of my post explains why it shouldn't, but why it has. It needs the ratings. But we shouldn't play into it; blogs have historically been better about substance than personality, although this primary season, that changed at the Daily Kos.

    I don't think the diarist at EENR gave it much thought and treated it more like a Lou Dobbs segment. Those who responded aired their feelings about the matter but I didn't see much discussion or dissection of the question. And I anticipated I wouldn't which is why I didn't bother to make a comment.

    Regarding McCain, if you look at the timing and context issue, that is why he is getting a pass. But again, voters don't make decisions on extramarital affairs; they make them on whom they dislike least or feel they can provide leadership for the country. This election is likely to be that way--of voting for someone new vs someone who wants 4 more years of "stay the course."

    If it is an issues diary, the diarist needs to do a little homework first instead of just throwing out a provocative simplistic question to provoke emotion, especially as HuffPo is now watching EENR.

    By Blogger benny06, at 2:58 PM  

  • Fair enough, and we all have the right to express different opinions on things like that.

    There are some folks on the blogs, and especially on the EENR, who are struggling with whether this should even be an issue in their thinking. There are some who are having troubles with sussing it out.

    The purpose of the diary was not to inform people of what are issues and what aren't issues - that would've taken research and back up proof, etc... and would have been a much more "I'm right" "You're wrong" diary and here's the backup.

    The purpose of this diary was to get people talking about it, as discourse generally helps flesh out feeling and assist in healing. And there's a whole lot of us that need healing from this too. And there are people who just have a harder time dealing with things like this without talking it out.

    Basically what this boils down to is simply a difference of opinion between people. There is neither a right nor a wrong opinion.

    You wrote a good column here, btw.



    By Blogger poligirl, at 9:30 PM  

  • Thanks for the complement, but in general, the diarist was angry at Edwards and most of the time doesn't do research. That's why I think the Issue series posted is pretty awful. It's all about emotions and not really in having an intelligent discussion.

    By Blogger benny06, at 2:03 AM  

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