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How the Media Created Independents

[digg-reddit-me]Many pundits and both campaigns have declared this the year of the independent voter1 – and both presidential campaigns are making serious attempts to reach out to these unaffiliated voters. It is often noted that not all of these independent voters are created equal. They can be divided into three roughly described camps:

  • the partisan independent who is a conservative or liberal, in all but name, who generally consumes media appropriate to his or her silent affiliation (e.g., the independent who watches Fox News, listens to Rush Limbaugh, and reads Ann Coulter, and agrees with all these sources or his or her liberal counterpart);
  • the issue independent who has strong positions on particular issues and will vote for whatever candidate supports those issues (e.g. a pro-life independent who is against the death penalty, war, and abortion who doesn’t know who to support this election cycle);
  • the character independent – whom this piece is about.

The character independents (hereinafter, just “independents”) supported McCain over Bush in 2000; and Obama over Clinton in 2008. In this election season, independents supported Obama over Clinton and his opponents and McCain over all of his Republican opponents, and in the polls so far, the independents are breaking evenly between Obama and McCain.

How is it that this group can be so evenly split – see-sawing this way and that – when the differences between the two candidates they are viewing are so stark?

I have a suspicion as to what’s going on here – as I am in many ways a character independent myself. My central idea is this: These independents are media creations – not media creations in the way that soccer moms and security moms were – stereotypes created to give flavor to election coverage – but creations of the media environment itself. Independent voters are individuals who have internalized the media’s approach to issues.

A while ago, I wrote a piece about a fundamental flaw in the mainstream media coverage of virtually every issue, every event, and every policy. While opinion columnists and the partisan press often take a side in reporting these issues – for example, “Global warming is real;” or “Obama is not a Muslim;” or “As far as we can tell, the Swift Boaters are just making stuff up” – the mainstream media will report both sides of each issue or policy or accusation. Within their piece, they might give slightly more credence to one point of view than another – and end the piece on a high note for one side or another – but they are generally careful to avoid taking sides, even when the facts support one side overwhelmingly.

The problem is that the mainstream media has adopted an understanding of fairness that treats competing claims as equally valid, irrespective of the opinion of the reporter, or even of the facts.2

The mainstream press attempts to adapt every story into their he-said, she-said paradigm – rather than fulfilling their journalistic responsibility to attempt to write the first rough draft of history, however flawed it may be. They avoid the facts at hand and instead merely transcribe the competing allegations, careful not to let their own reporting interfere. This leads – for example – to 53% of stories in the mainstream press about global warming to question the basic premises of this theory, while within peer-reviewed scientific journals, 0% of stories call into question the basic premises. This disconnect between reality as understood by science and the reporting on the science is what has lead to a 15 year interim between the scientific consensus on global warming and the finally emerging political consensus. If the reporters covering this story had done their work properly, they could have called the global warming skeptics what they were – oil industry shills – instead of reporting on their work as independent and nearly as credible as the vast majority of scientists.

Most voters’ only contact with any presidential candidate is through the media – so it is only natural that the media substantially affects their choices.3 An independent-minded person viewing or reading media that presents every issue as he-said, she-said has to develop a method of resolving this conflict between  the he’s and she’s. While a partisan will pick a team, and strongly tend to come down on the side of that team, an independent takes pride in seeing both sides of every issue – just as the media does. But while the media can avoid taking a side, an independent must – every two years or so – vote and make a choice.4

While the media is always able to find opposing sets of competing allegations, reality is not so simple. The media shouldn’t give equal time to claims by McCain that offshore drilling will reduce oil prices significantly and by Obama that it will not. They know one side is wrong and the other right. The media shouldn’t give equal time to scientists and skeptics about global warming. One side has evidence – the other side only has money. Since the right learned to manipulate the media by directly contradicting their opponents’ positions, no matter the facts, they have won election after election.

By distorting the news to fit into their paradigm, the media has created a class of voters who see both sides of every issue – even when the facts clearly favor one side. For the past ten years, as the media has been manipulated, so have they. And obvious policy choices and elections suddenly become competitive. This same pattern is emerging this year as the media treats Obama’s policies and McCain’s policies equally – even when one is reality-based and the other defined by political expediency. And so, independents are split equally so far in a year that should favor the Democrats.

But you can see that the Republicans are getting nervous – as the media finally began to cover the McCain campaign with the same intensity it has been using to cover Obama’s because of the Palin pick. Yesterday – all night – the Republicans attacked the media. They want to raise doubts in the minds of independents in case the media finally turns on them. In the end, it’s clear how the media will cover these attacks. They will get McCain operatives to give quotes bashing their reporting, and then they will get some reporters to comment on how they’re trying to be fair. And independents will see both sides.

  1. It’s also the year of the Hillary voter, Reagan Democrats, and the libertarian voter. []
  2. This is demonstrated rather clearly in this piece in the Washington Post from 2004 that asserts that both Kerry’s account and the Swift Boaters’ accounts “contain significant flaws and factual errors” while only providing evidence to back up the flaws and errors in the Swift Boaters’ allegations. The main flaw in Kerry’s information is that he did not provide enough evidence to disprove the Swift Boaters, while the Swift Boaters also provided no evidence to prove their case. Thus, overall the piece portrays it as a wash. []
  3. This goes for those whose main sources are partisan media as well. []
  4. I don’t mean to suggest that independents don’t have strong opinions and preferences; rather, once they have resolved how to deal with the media’s framing, they often have very strong opinions. []

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