A Political News Diet

Washington Matters

A Political News Diet

Journalism is often referred to as the Fourth Estate, after the church, nobility and the commoners. It also can be thought of as an informal fourth branch of government -- one that can't legislate, adjudicate or execute laws but has only the power to provide a check on power. Journalists, myself included, pride ourselves on the notion that we hold lawmakers, candidates and others accountable.
But as in every profession, it is easy to get complacent and even lazy -- and for reporters, editors and broadcasters, that can translate into thinking that pouncing on a perceived inconsistency or gaffe means the job is done. Just as food marketing has helped turn many of us into out-of-shape, waddling consumers, the media is helping us become flabby, self-indulgent thinkers and voters. But we don't have to be.

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Mark Willen indirectly made this point yesterday while discussing Iraq and the stark black-and-white, punch-counterpunch nature of the debate between presidential candidates John McCain and Barrack Obama over the war. Mark suggested, correctly, that the consequences of how the war is handled and eventually concluded are far too grave to be used as a tactic in a game of did-to, did-not between the two men.

Exploiting and oversimplifying issues, of course, has been with us as long as humans have had a hand in picking those who rule us. But one reason that political candidates debate like this is because those who cover them seize on conflict and reduce complex issues shaded in grays to black and white. So if attacks attract coverage, and nuance and context are constantly overlooked, how is a candidate going to behave? Furthermore, if candidates do engage in a thoughtful conversation or give a detailed speech on one topic, much of the substance is ignored. And if a candidate does make a mistake or switches a position, he could be shouting the secrets to eternal health and happiness and no one would hear him over the media furor. Accusations of flip-flops are guaranteed headlines, while careful analysis is an audience killer --or so many editors believe. Just look at how the ultimately meaningless Jesse Jackson flap has been, quite breathlessly, the lead political item on cable news networks for the past day? Jackson may remain influential in some circles, but let's face it -- what he thinks of Obama and says (in what he thought was private) isn't really of much consequence. But unfortunately, few TV producers can resist playing and replaying an embarrassing slip of the tongue because of the titillation factor. Frankly, I think most of us are more than a little sick of being titillated at the expense of substance -- especially when so much is at stake.

But there is some good news. While, the overall tone of a campaign and its coverage can feel like turning on The Jerry Springer Show, high quality, careful thinking is being done by the candidates now and then -- and so is thoughtful coverage by various news outlets. But finding them requires the same type of informed consumerism as it does to come out of a supermarket with fresh and nutritious foods instead of bags filled with Twinkies, Pringles and frozen corn dogs. Here are some thoughts:

  • Just as you should skip the big flashy displays at the ends of grocery aisles, ignore or pay only passing attention to day-to-day coverage of the campaigns, instant analysis of speeches or stories that pretty much parrot a campaign's message of the day. When you pick up Oreos or Charmin at those end-of-aisle displays, you're buying what the store wants to sell you, not necessarily what will serve you best.
  • Go to the produce aisle and look for what's fresh, what's bountiful and what makes sense for you. There are high quality news outlets with articles and broadcasts packed with facts and insights you've probably never head of or looked at. And take your time. While the stories last week about Obama allegedly shifting his position on Iraq and McCain's attempts to exploit that largely amounted to junk food, there were far better stories this week that gave a serious and nuanced look at their positions and the situation in Iraq. Look at The Washington Post story yesterday and its analysis of the challenges posed for both candidates by changes on the ground in Iraq.
  • Skip the frozen dinners. Cook it yourself from original ingredients. Look at candidate position papers or read and listen to them in their own words. The Post archives texts and video of speeches by McCain and Obama, organized by date and with clear topic titles. Think you may be getting hornswaggled? Look for nonpartisan outlets that subject the campaigns to truth tests. One of the best is factcheck.org. But mainstream news sites and outlets often do truth-telling of claims and ads as well. Want to hear what genuine experts think about positions on specific issues? Go to policy groups and think tanks that specialize on specific issues. If you're interested in health care, for example, try the Kaiser Family Foundation for thoughtful looks at everything from insurance reform proposals to fixing Medicare. They have a nifty side-by-side comparison  of the candidates' health reform plans.
  • Don't just eat and buy the same thing or just what you know. The Internet is a remarkable tool, but it's a dangerous one, too. It's extremely easy to search out and find bloggers, forums and analysts who reflect your point of view.  But think about it ... you already know what you think and feel. Try some opposing viewpoints or non-partisan ones. They may confirm your thinking -- or they may change your mind.
  • Finally, treat yourself. Plunk some Ben and Jerry's in the cart. If you restrict yourself too much, you're bound to binge. So sure, let yourself listen to Limbaugh, read Maureen Dowd or watch slugfests such as The McLaughlin Group. But remember, they're desserts and occasional snacks -- not the main course.