Every semester when I teach my students about the media, I present them with the neglected history of American investigative journalism. I tell them about Ida B. Wells, who documented lynchings across the South in the late 1800s. I tell them about the muckrakers like Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, and Lincoln Steffens, who documented and exposed inhumane working conditions and the corrupt collusion between business magnates and politicians during the Progressive Era.
I introduce them to George Seldes and I.F. Stone and Seymour Hersch before capping off the semester with a showing of All The President’s Men, during which two dogged journalists bring down an entire administration. I even show them a video of conservative activist James O’Keefe as he demonstrates how simple it is to vote on someone else’s behalf — even the attorney general of the United States.
I do this to remind them of a durable and venerable tradition of intrepid reporting in this country and to convince them that indeed a single person can make a difference — a single article or book can alter the public’s consciousness and lead to new discussions and legislation.
This lesson is designed as a kind of stealth inoculation: a lesson that is motivated out a of a sense of frustration and despair regarding the current state of journalism in this country — a lesson that is meant to suggest that things have not always been this way, and that we can demand more from this noble profession.
Others have commented on how many of our political media outlets traffic in sensationalism. Michael Austin wrote an excellent article on the manufacturing of outrage and the deliberate abuse of hyperbolic language, story selection, and partisan framing in order to generate extreme emotional responses — and higher ratings. Indeed, this is journalism — if we can call it that — at its worst.
But even when professional journalism is at its most serious, it is a travesty, especially when it takes the form of “public opinion journalism.”
It is now considered responsible journalism to lead a story with a headline that begins, “Latest Poll Finds…” The video below features Chuck Todd, NBC News’ political director and a ubiquitous panelist on NBC and MSNBC. Todd is the poster boy of public opinion journalism.
What is scandalous is the way this species of journalism corrupts our political dialogue. It is now considered perfectly normal and insightful to ask a thousand Americans what their “approval rating” is of the president or other political actors or groups. The poll mentioned in the video includes a question that reaches a new low: “Can the president lead and get the job done?”
This strikes me as slightly more insipid than the fatuous inquiry: “Do you think the country is headed in the right direction?”
Readers must ask themselves, are these the best questions that can be asked to begin conversations about complex political matters? Are these the kinds of questions pollsters should be asking intelligent, responsible, and thoughtful adults?
Notice the hasty connections that Chuck Todd draws when he invokes the president’s dropping approval numbers on foreign policy; he simply spits out proper nouns that are currently charged with negative emotions: “Syria, then you have the crisis in Ukraine, then you have the situation with the Bergdahl trade, then we can talk about the Iranian negotiations,” and so on.
Completely absent here is any kind of nuance or any attempt at understanding to what degree the president is able to shape events in these places.
This kind of oversimplification of people’s emotions and the regurgitation of people’s binary responses to complex matters comes at a cost. For instance, an ABC News/Washington Post poll from 2013 found that while 52 percent of those surveyed opposed the Affordable Care Act, more (62%) felt they did not have enough information about the law.
A poll from the same year by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that there still exists much misinformation about some of the basic provisions of the law, including 57 percent who believe that the law opened up a public option, and 40 percent who believe that it created “death panels” that give the government the authority to make end-of-life decisions for recipients of Medicare.
In a complete abdication of journalistic accountability, Chuck Todd, speaking on the issue of misunderstanding of the health care law, blamed the president and the Democrats for not successfully “selling” the law to the public rather than acknowledging that it is the responsibility of the media — which instead habitually and lazily assess the evolving popularity or “approval” of the law — to accurately represent the law’s contents.
But it gets worse: not only does public opinion journalism displace real journalism, its focus on image, popularity, and “optics” debases our political discourse and turns the media and its leading figures into political arms for both parties.
During what ought to have been a serious and analytical discussion of Obama’s foreign policy during his appearance on Meet the Press on August 10, 2014, Chuck Todd called the president’s foreign policy “poll perfect” to describe the way the president has tried to appease the public’s (alleged) reluctance to intervene militarily abroad.
Political leaders have learned how to manipulate the media and its penchant for tracking popularity for their short-term benefit, and, after enough time, viewers have come to see every politician’s utterance as calculated to have precisely this effect.
In other words, with the media focused on image and the “impact” of politicians’ statements and actions rather than on their substance, viewers become wary and cynical – attitudes that further erode our trust in government.
As the late Christopher Hitchens said of this journalistic practice, opinion poll journalism “completely economizes on thought, on work, on reflection, on going out and talking to people. It’s all done; it does itself. It doesn’t require any effort, any thinking, or any real research.”
These words come to mind when I watch Chuck Todd and other talking heads and begin to imagine who should replace them in their seats: I think about investigative journalists like those who work for Vice News and risk their lives to show people what life is like in Kiev during anti-government protests or how the Islamic State overtakes a town, enforces shari’a, and indoctrinates children to hate the infidel.
I think about do-it-myself journalists like Tracie McMillan and Barbara Ehrenreich who live the life of the hungry and working poor and report on poverty in the same way that Michael Lewis and Matt Taibbi report on Wall Street’s machinations from the inside.
I think about the knowledgeable and articulate scholars and experts displaced by a rotating battalion of partisan pundits, pollsters, and political consultants and strategists who repeat the conventional wisdom, who speculate idly on partisan and personal branding campaigns and on elections dozens of months away, and who violate on a daily basis the very purpose of journalism: to report the facts, to present suppressed, neglected, or unconventional stories and ideas, and to tell people something they did not already know.
As citizens, this scandalous form of journalism is problematic enough, but for independents, it is especially troubling.
These oversimplified questions that appear on these polls are meant to set the terms of the debate: pollsters, establishment journalists, and politicians thrive on questions with binary responses (“Is the country headed in the right direction?” or “Are you better off now than you were 4 or 8 years ago?”). However, these questions wholly discourage independent or critical thought — just as the results do.
For instance, notice how, in the video above, Chuck Todd confidently concludes by stating (based on what 500 respondents have reported) that, “This is as if the public is saying, ‘hey buddy, your presidency is over. You may not believe it is, but your ability to lead and convince us that you have the right policies anymore, we’re not listening.’”
When this simplistic and ungeneralizable finding ricochets around the media, the conversation is no longer about what is or ought to be happening, but how the president or other politicians can improve their standing with the public — a kind of gossip that influential political websites, cable news shows, and even the more serious Sunday morning shows specialize in.
The best way to discourage this kind of lazy journalism is first to be aware of it; second, to boycott it (if not collectively, then personally); and finally, to collect information from a variety of sources and develop our own opinions and means of evaluating politicians and the country’s policies.