Is it that the media pundits are simply too rich to understand?

Media / journalism, Politics, US Politics

Ken Grant slammed NBC News’ Mark Whitaker the other day for displaying particularly pronounced vacuity after Obama’s speech on the economy and his stimulus package.* Apparently, the new Senior Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief for NBC News took to the screen to evaluate Obama’s speech. What did he say “in response to this serious and important speech on the direction that [Obama] plans to take regarding said economic turmoil”?

Did he comment on the substance? Perhaps quibble with the details?  Offer a trenchant critique on the merits of the plan?

Please.  [..] No, Mr. Whitaker decided to flog Obama for his speaking style.

He blathered on for a bit on how he was surprised that Mr. Obama’s speech pattern did not sound like the soaring uplift as heard on the campaign trail.  He wondered why Mr. Obama sounded more like a con-law professor.

Grant’s pissed and goes on the same rant all of us have indulged in at some point in the election season: “This is the problem with our news today, as they are far more concerned with the ‘optics’ or the ‘tone’ or any number of other completely superfluous bits of fluff and ephemera.” Right. As for why though, he offers one straightforward explanation to go in the mix:

You see, he has a job that pays him an extraordinary amount of money, and thus he really doesn’t seem to see that there is a problem.  “Yes, yes, the ‘help’ is feeling a bit pinched, these days [..] Ah, well, hopefully that nice Mr. Obama can do something, if only he would do exactly what we want him to do, and in the manner in which we have become accustomed.”

I think people like Whitaker are more concerned with the manner in which things are done being what they are accustomed to than Obama doing what they want him to do – I don’t think they necessarily have much in the way of specifics on that anyway, other than that he shouldn’t rock the boat too much. But regarding the money thing, is at least part of it really that simple?

I think so. It reminds me of how pundits belly-ached about electoral risks once McCain went on his “spreading the wealth” schtick. I quoted Ezra Klein when I wrote about it back then:

The problem is, elites have an availability bias. They know a lot of folks who make over $100,000. Charlie Gibson wasn’t being malign when he named $200,000 as an average income — he was being unreflective. [..] People live near folks with similar incomes. The rich aren’t randomly sprinkled across the country. Rather, a lot of them live near Charlie Gibson [..].

To most of the country, no one makes $100,000 a year. It’s five percent of the nation. And not a five percent they run into very often. But it’s a five percent that pundits live amongst, that reporters live amongst, and that politicians live amongst, and all of those folks agree that it’s not very much money at all [..].

For the people like the Fox News pundits in the video I included in that post, an income of $250,000 is “not a lot!,” because “a lot of people make that” – and while that’s Fox, many Democratic analysts, pundits and politicians in the Beltway suffer the same distortions of perspective. So forget about the Republican deadenders – it’s this disconnect among opinion makers with the economic reality everyday Americans face that will pose some of the stiffer challenges for Obama, when it comes to pushing through a strong stimulus program. What I wrote then about how tax proposals are received will hold true now too:

The very people who, through life circumstances [suffer a] distortion in their perception of what is normal or regular [..] are the ones with a disproportionate influence on how such a proposal is portrayed. They’re the figures of authority who have the ability to present it to us as a realistic and none too unusual an option, or as something risky, possibly dangerous and definitely very liberal. You know how that choice works out usually.

The recession is at the top of the agenda for every news show, for sure. But the anchors and pundits themselves are not really feeling it, and it can show. The economy simply dwarfed all other issues as the deciding one for voters, the exit polls revealed – but would you have been able to tell from the campaign coverage?

Cleaning out the Beltway

Image used under CC license from Flickr user theamericanroadside

Are the mainstream media just behind the curve on this one? For a decade, the economy was mostly the domain of hyper-excited, jargon-filled business shows for investors, and otherwise considered boring unless someone pulled an election stunt over gas prices or demagogued tax rates. Now, the voters are almost singularly focused on economic worries, but many media pundits still seem to think the most important thing about an economic debate is the internal politics of it, the optics, the personal rivalries it might spur in Congress, etc.

Politicians at least get direct feedback from voters upon whose approval their job depends. Old school reporters would face people’s concerns first-hand while doing their field reportage. But the talking heads share no such accountability. And as long as they’re not really feeling it, they will all too quickly be distracted by debates on style and personal politics – and tut-tut any all too ambitious move by the Obama administration. Never mind conservative hold-outs; Broderism might prove the greater obstacle to an effective, progressive response to the economic crisis.

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* Is it just me and a horde of teenage boys, or does “Obama’s massive stimulus package” just sound wrong?

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