Were U. S. Journalists Fair in Their Coverage of the 2012 Elections?

Overall coverage of the 2012 elections seemed balanced to me in a statistical sense. In the distribution of people’s opinions, the central tendency seemed middle of the road, not left or right of it. I’m sure others would disagree.­­­­

Certainly the candidates and issues were polarizing, but it was more individual pundits than the mainstream media who espoused opposing viewpoints. That was neither a fault nor a sin. For example, I disagreed with Sarah Palin, who weighed in on “media manipulation” in a Fox News interview as if there was an ongoing conspiracy against right wingers. CBS News President David Rhodes offered her the perfect rejoinder, “That is not polarization. Part of the role of these news organizations is to cover that disagreement.” (See http://www.slashfood.com/videos-partner/election-2012-news-coverage-in-a-polarized-america-517371034-211)

This resonates with the take-away from my chat with Ames Brown, a “Poly-Sci” friend who reeled off his laundry list of media classifications: “The blogosphere is liberal. MSNBC is left. Comedy Central is left. The New Yorker is left. Bloomberg is mixed. CNBC and Fox are right.” His qualification was that “in the final analysis people are branded as liberal or conservative. The organizations they represent are guilty by association.”

What was missing?

What I want is something akin to the Marshall McLuhan scene in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” (See http://youtu.be/9wWUc8BZgWE)

In that movie, McLuhan magically enters from stage right to authoritatively settle a dispute between Allen and a Columbia University media professor. Stepping out of character for a moment, Allen looks directly into the camera and remarks, “Boy if life were only like this.”

At times during the debates I needed a similar pause in the action to fact check, like a review of the tapes after a controversial play in football. It would be handy to have pundits, real or virtual, pop-up and reference reports that the candidates cited as substantiating their claims. I installed the PolitiFact app on my iPhone for this purpose, but it was insufficient at keeping pace. Siri also had a hard time keeping up.

It would be better still if the candidates themselves cited chapter and verse in these reports—even holding them up to the camera. On this my friend Ames observed that “many of the issues covered in the debates were way over the heads of most Americans.” This led me to wonder; had my congresswoman actually read the fine print? Perhaps in self-reporting their sources, in the manner of journalists, the candidates could’ve self-vetted in public, adding to their credibility.

In retrospect, these failings of the broadcast media are what compelled me to eyeball two dynamic web sources on election night.

One was a national map on the CNN site, in which the counts of electoral votes were updated as outlines of the states were gradually tinted red or blue. It seemed rather predictable that the election was following the right-to-left sweep of sunset across four time zones: first blue in the east, mostly red in the center, then blue again in the west.

In contrast, the Talking Points Memo site offered a “floating bubble diagram” in which the diameters of “keyword circles” were varied every few seconds according to the frequencies of words used in the Twitter-space. Tweets were clearly being peppered with liberal, democratic-sounding terms. Obama and Biden were the two biggest undulating ovals. Romney’s circle was surprisingly small.

So, there’s a grain of analysis offered by social media, especially in the realm local elections that’s the perfect complement to the glommed-together mainstream macro-media. It’s filling-in the gap as the latter lose their regional focus. That’s what’s missing!

Perhaps news of the future will come to us on enhanced digital displays, like those in the movie Minority Report–where Tom Cruise is able to presage events and arrest suspects before they commit their crimes. The flood of data would be chunked so we might form conclusions on-the-fly.

A caveat is in order here: I’m not a political scientist by training. Being surrounded by plenty of academics and friends with strong opinions, I try to maintain an apolitical public persona so as not to offend people or get wrangled into debates. I do have informed viewpoints.

There was a growing consensus that Obama had more ways to win the Electoral College in the final days prior to the actual vote. I went to bed before the outcome was announced but confident it had been determined. By then I was tired of the advertising deluge and hyperbole. Ironically, Romney and Ryan were reported as “shocked” and “in tears” just prior to conceding. Clearly they believed it.

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