View from Australia: The elusive centre

By Jonathan Bradley

It's a strange thing, being a political journalist.

See, journalists hold two admirable values. The first is truth. The second is impartiality. And yet, putting those two together results in some strange chimeric creature that barely exists outside the beltway and off the payroll of major news organisations.

Let me explain.

Journalists value truth because every corrupting influence in life flourishes in truth's absence. Venality and subterfuge depend on lies. In a democracy, voters are able to make an informed decision because the press is willing to shine a harsh light on the political arena, one that coaxes from the shadows any attempt at misdirection or misinformation. The best voters are informed voters, and the journalistic fidelity to truth is aimed at producing informed voters.

Journalists value impartiality because they understand that truth is flighty and intangible. One cannot recognise truth on sight alone. Only through a steady commitment to reporting the facts, without bias, as they hear them, has allowed journalists to retain the public credibility required to exercise their trade. Only when a reader knows that a reporter is not trying to push an agenda can the reader be certain the reporter's account of a situation can be trusted. Or so goes the theory.

Add all this up, and the Washington reporter is a strange creature indeed. Her pursuit of truth gives her an extraordinarily level of political knowledge, but her adherence to impartiality means she has no opinions about that knowledge. Though it is her task to interpret an institution governed by the whims of other Americans, the political journalist is someone who finds herself in a position shared by precious few other Americans.

Reports of these strange creatures exist. You hear every now and then of journalists so committed to their craft that they do not even vote. But in general it's a nonsensical fiction. Of course reporters have opinions. They're human beings, and human beings develop opinions. They especially develop opinions on things they know a lot about.

Caitlin Curran, a journalist fired for attending an Occupy rally.

Public radio journalist Caitlin Curran (above) was fired last week for developing an opinion — or, more accurately, for voicing it. She was photographed participating in the Occupy Wall Street protest, and her boss thought this breached her responsibility to appear impartial. Conor Friedersdorf criticises that stance:

To borrow a phrase, every editor who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that propagating the myth of "objective journalism" is indefensible. A newspaper or radio program may try to hide or obscure the fact that the people responsible for its content have opinions, convictions, and biases. But it is impossible to function as a journalist without making subjective judgment calls about newsworthiness, relevance and emphasis, or covering issues about which you have an opinion. Pretending otherwise requires willfully misleading the public.

An ethical journalist ought to be accurate. She ought to be fair. Her aim ought to be reporting the truth or earnestly advancing a logically sound argument, rather than enriching herself or bolstering her reputation or shilling for her partisan or ideological allies. It is perfectly legitimate for a journalistic organization to decide that it is going to publish or broadcast work that presents verifiable facts as neutrally as possible, and avoid permitting its employees to inject statements of opinion into their professional output. If that's what you mean by "journalistic objectivity," you've not run afoul of my views.

This isn't a simple issue. Portland media worker Colin Seidler makes a good argument that Curran was imprudent in attending the protest. But whether her firing was proper or not, my concern is directed at journalists who actually buy into this myth of impartiality.

Like I said, the political journalist is a strange beast, one who knows everything and thinks nothing. The problem is that the American voter is almost exactly the opposite. Many of the people most important in determining the outcome of elections make important decisions while knowing next to nothing. That's a description, not an insult, by the way. I'll let Jonathan Bernstein explain why:

I don't mean to draw any negative conclusions about American voters. I don't think they're stupid. I just think that people have a lot of other interests besides the minutia of politics and public policy. There's nothing wrong with that; indeed, it's in most cases very smart to use shortcuts such as political party and other opinion leaders to substitute for detailed study of public policy.

Here's what the American electorate looks like: A large proportion of the population are partisans. They will almost always vote for one of the two major parties. Their vote is not really up for grabs. Estimates on the size of this group vary, but it's roughly around 60 per cent of the population.

Then there are the pseudo-independents. These folks say they don't support either major party, and they probably mean it. They may have serious issues with the policies of both parties. But when they step up to the ballot box, these pseudo-independents magically become partisans. They say all along that they hold no affiliation, but every voting day, they vote for the same party again and again. It doesn't much matter if you tell pollsters you're an independent if on every election day you end up siding with the Republican candidate.

Then there are the people who actually are independents. Really. They don't prefer one party to the other, and on election day, they're just as likely to support one as they are the other. This is the precious, all important swing voter, deified by press and political operative alike.

The only problem is that there are very few of these independents, and they don't really pay attention to politics. Only about 7 per cent of the population is genuinely independent, and these folks are not the highly attentive centrists of the press's imagination. They tend to be poorly informed voters who don't vote as often, and when they do, they make their choice with little forethought or analysis. The neverending Washington game of guessing how the judicious political centre is reacting to the scandal-du-jour is an exercise in mass self-delusion. The judicious political centre is wondering what else is on TV.

Here's how a veteran Congressional staffer described the situation to my colleague James Fallows:

The mainstream media absolutely fails to understand how little attention average Americans really pay to what goes on in all forms of government. During our 2008 race, our pollster taught me (hard to believe it took me 24 years to learn this) that the average voter spends only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress. All the millions of dollars of TV ads, all the thousands of robo-calls and door-knocks, and it all comes down to having a message that will stick in the voters' minds during the 5 minutes before they walk into the voting booth.

The media likes to call this group "independents," which implies that they think so long and deeply about issues that they refuse to be constrained by the philosophy of either party. There may be a couple of people out there who fit that definition, but those are not the persuadable voters campaigns are trying to capture. Every campaign is trying to develop its candidate into an easy-to-remember slogan that makes him or her more appealing than the other guy. Actually, because negative campaigning is so effective, they are more often trying to portray the opponent as more objectionable ("I guess I'll vote for the crook because at least he won't slash my Medicare").

Like I said, there's nothing wrong with this. Not everyone shares my strange obsession with the ins-and-outs of political news. But journalists like to imagine these uninformed independents are actually the people reporters pretend to be: highly knowledgeable yet lacking in partisan opinions. The problem with this fantasy is that it leads to flawed analysis. Here, for example, is a recent love letter to the political centre from David Brooks:

[Obama is] campaigning these days as the populist fighter, the scourge of the privileged class ... It raises the ideological temperature and arouses the Big Government/Small Government debate. It repels independents, who don’t like the finance majors who went to Wall Street but trust the history majors who went to Washington even less.

Obama would be wiser to champion a Grand Bargain strategy. Use the Congressional deficit supercommittee to embrace the sort of new social contract we’ve been circling around for the past few years: simpler taxes, reformed entitlements, more money for human capital, growth and innovation.

Longtime Congressional observers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein show just how misguided this analysis is:

[T]rue Independents and swing voters aren’t best captured through clever centrist political positioning. They have almost no ideological frameworks with which to judge the candidates and parties; they are quintessentially referendum voters, with low levels of information and focusing almost exclusively on performance. Their greatest concern now, quite naturally, is jobs and economic growth, and they are therefore unlikely candidates for recruitment into a radical center supporting a Grand Bargain on the national deficit.

Reporters like to think independents want a "grand bargain" because it seems a natural compromise for someone highly informed and undecided. But just because someone supports neither side is no reason to believe that he supports something in the middle. Like the unbiased reporter, the knowledgeable, unbiased voter is a myth.

2 November 2011