Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Staged political event not news

Apparently the Iowa City Press-Citizen found it news-worthy that Mitt Romney made public statements critical of Democratic leadership.

"Romney: Leaders put nation on road to decline; Former governor criticizes health care reform."

The Associated Press story highlights the former Massachusetts governor's statements at a book signing in Des Moines on Monday. That Romney, a potential Republican nominee for the 2012 presidential election, was critical of his opposition was predictable, expected. It was hardly news.

But it was a non-event that ended up garnering front-page treatment. Why is this? Likely because known personalities can drive readers' interest in news stories. We see this in the popularity of tabloid publications. Those principles are not unknown in the traditional news room.

Political controversy is a second motivation for running Romney's comments on page one. We see the prevailing programming on the popular cable news networks is confrontational political talk. Viewers eat it up, and are likely to do so when they see it in print.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Focus on money, not rhetoric behind policy

Today the New York Times ran a front-page story titled "A Consumer Bill Gives Exemption On Payday Loans." I was pleased to find that reporter Sewell Chan's sole emphasis was on the important role of money in shaping this legislation, not the superficial candy of political deal-making.

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee takes center stage in the scrutiny. A ranking member on the Senate Banking Committee, he has effectively lobbied Democratic Senator Chris Dodd, the committee chair, to loosen proposed regulations on payday loan businesses.

The bill creates a consumer protection agency that would set rules on consumer lending and enforce penalties on offenders. Corker's change would require the agency petition a regulatory board before rules could be enforced upon payday lenders.

The change was agreed upon by Dodd in bipartisan spirit in order to recieve Corker's support, and get the bill out of committee and onto the senate floor for a vote.

But rather than focusing on a bipartisan victory - a seemingly rare feet in present-day Washington, the reporter uncovered the appearance of unethical legislative practices. Corker had received financial political support from the payday loan industry based largely in Tennessee, creating the appearance of a quid pro quo action on the part of the senator.

Though Dodd and other committee members were also shown to have recieved past campaign funding from the payday loan industry, the donations were fewer and more characteristic of passive political support.

As well, the original legislation had not been written to favor payday lenders with an extra barrier to regulation. It was only put in place after Corker's lobbying.

This story might have been angled to celebrate Corker and Dodd's bipartisan deal-making, which would have undermined reporting on the actual content of the bill. Instead, the reporter gave the reader important information on how political donations in this case, may have effected an industry consumers use every day.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Blogger: Media complicit in political games

On Monday, Foreign Policy.com blogger David Rothkopf posted a declaration of independence from his former political party affiliation. In the post entitled "Why I Am No Longer A Democrat" Rothkopf decries the inefficient governance of America's two-party system. The parties, he says are no longer the best way to organize the various interest groups that make up the voting public. In fact, he says they are a hindrance.

Complicit, Rothkopf writes, in this broken system is the media. What is wrong with the coverage is this: "It's all about the game of politics and not at all about the business of governing." This he writes, puts politicians in permanent campaign mode, diverting much of their energies away from practical legislating. Rothkopf writes, "The media's obsession with daily polls and who's in and who's out and the cage match aspects of politics, has also unsurprisingly made it impossible (in a time of shrinking news department resources) to cover what should be covered."

I say amen to all of these comments.

The idea of reporting on politics as a contest, a sort of sporting event, plays into the meaner instincts of public nature. Affiliation becomes religion. Deviation from ideology - the audacity of compromise - becomes defeat. And no one likes a loser. The divisive zero-sum political power struggle that is touted by our politicians is a losing game for governance. Our media outlets should not honor it with a play-by-play.