Media bias in presidential elections is old news, but does it really matter? Will all those negative news stories about George W. Bush's verbal missteps, the flap over subliminal messages in Republican ads and press skepticism about Bush's policy proposals make a difference come election day? And what about Al Gore's own problems with the press? He's hardly been the darling of political reporters over the last several months, earning his share of negative stories prior to the Democrat convention. Nonetheless, Republicans have good reason for concern.
With an electorate that has grown increasingly less well-informed and disaffected from politics, the three-minute reports on the evening news may be the primary source of information for many voters. Worse still, these stories turn up in late-night TV comics' riffs, translating elite media bias into pop culture. With most Americans paying less attention to politics in general these days, a candidate's media image may be more important to his chances of being elected than where he actually stands on issues.
So, what images of Al Gore and George W. Bush do the media project? Gore is given high marks for being well-informed, detail-oriented, and a populist. On the negative side, he's generally regarded as stiff, aloof (especially from the press corps itself, since he denies reporters free access even during campaign events), and as someone who stretches the truth a bit.
Bush, on the other hand, is better liked by reporters (probably because he lets them ask him questions on the campaign trail), and is generally regarded as a genial fellow. Reporters early on gave Bush high marks for being a "different kind of Republican," by which they meant he wasn't necessarily anti-black and anti-woman. But the media has also portrayed Bush as an intellectual lightweight and his policy proposals as short on substance and generally tilted toward the rich. Hey, based only on this snapshot, I might vote for Gore, too.
Media bias doesn't stem solely from the fact that most of the press corps itself vote Democrat (a phenomenon that goes back at least 20 years). The problem is more complicated. The reporters who cover politics are generally not experts on policy. And few reporters, including those whose expertise stretches beyond politics, have even a modest understanding of how the U.S. economy works. So, when Al Gore promises to "create 10 million new high-tech, high-skill jobs," or "cut the pay gap between what men and women earn by 50 percent over the next decade," as he did recently, the media simply report it without questioning the basic premise. But if George W. Bush promises to cut taxes, reporters are all over the story, dissecting exactly how Bush is going to 'pay for' a tax cut -- a rather odd way to think about letting Americans keep more of the money they earn.
The media swallow whole Gore's Master of the Universe explanation of his economic goals. But they treat with great skepticism Bush's proposals, which rely more on private sector solutions to social and economic problems -- like helping solve the Social Security crisis by allowing young workers today to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in stocks to pay for their future retirement.
If recent trends are any indication, many voters will go into the polling booth without any clear understanding of the issues of this election or much knowledge about how government works. Four years ago, the Washington Post teamed up with Harvard University and the Kaiser Foundation to learn how much the average American knows about our political system and our leaders. The results of a representative sample of 1,500 randomly-selected adults were frightening.
Two-thirds of those interviewed didn't know who represented them in Congress, 40 percent didn't know who the vice president was, nearly half didn't know what role the Supreme Court plays in deciding constitutional issues, and three-quarters didn't know U.S. senators serve six-year terms. On average, women were less informed than men and Democrats less informed than Republicans.
No wonder the media get away with sloppy reporting and liberal bias. It used to be the press considered themselves to be the watchdogs of democracy. But with so much of the electorate apathetic and ignorant, who's watching the watchdogs these days?