The Hack Gap Revisited: How Powerful Is the Modern Media?

Last night I argued that although President Obama turned in a weak debate performance on Wednesday, his bigger problem was the wild overreaction of liberal talking heads immediately after the debate. Joan Walsh of Salon takes issue with this today, and she lands some good punches. But I particularly want to respond to one of the things she says:

Can Drum truly believe that mainstream media reporters take their cues from liberals on TV? Some 58 million people watched the debate; maybe a few million watched MSNBC afterward. Could Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz really define Obama’s debate performance as poor in the absence of evidence that it was, well, poor?

Let’s take these one at a time. First, do mainstream reporters take their cues from liberals on TV?

Normally, no. But this isn’t a normal news story. It’s an explicitly partisan event, one where news reporters would normally be required to cover it straight: Obama said X, Romney said Y, blah blah blah. If both sides insist that their guy did well, that’s about all the mainstream folks can say. But when Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz and Joan Walsh all deliver stinging denunciations of Obama’s performance, this gives them permission to report as fact that Romney won. See, even liberals agree! And sure enough, that’s how things eventually congealed. This is a fundamental point about how the modern media works, one that we fail to understand at our peril.

Second, can TV talking heads really define Obama’s performance? I think so. I admit that the evidence here is thin, but the polling I saw suggests that viewers polled during the debate thought it was about even; viewers polled right after the debate though Romney had won; and viewers polled a little later still thought it was a rout. I can’t think of any good explanation for this aside from the effect of the talking heads right after the debate and the firestorm of liberal criticism that quickly turned into a feeding frenzy of outrage. And generally speaking, I’d say there’s plenty of historical evidence that media coverage of presidential debates has much more impact than the debates themselves. (However, I’d be very interested if someone could point me to a solid analysis of poll data on this question. I’m basing this on what I saw and read at the time, but my memory might be faulty.)

For the record, I should note that I’m making an observation here, not an endorsement. Walsh says, “Certainly if Drum thinks it’s my job to be Sean Hannity in lipstick, repeating David Axelrod’s talking points every night, that’s not a job I’m interested in.” Me neither! Nonetheless, there’s a clear price to be paid for this, and I think we saw an unusually dramatic demonstration of it last Wednesday.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.