Political Reporting and Our Great Adult Educational Failure

Political reporting isn’t looking too good right now, what between the usual primary surrealism and the recent utterance by NY Times Ombuddy Arthur Brisbane. A recent Pew poll details how little voters know about very basic political facts:

Many voters do not know basic facts about the Republican candidates running for president or the early primary calendar. While a sizable majority (69%) knows that Newt Gingrich served as speaker of the House, only about half (53%) identify Massachusetts as the state where Mitt Romney served as governor.

Fewer than half of registered voters (45%) identify South Carolina as the state with the next primary after Iowa and New Hampshire (the survey was conducted Jan. 4-8, before New Hampshire’s Jan. 10 primary). And while Ron Paul fared well in the early GOP contests, just 44% of voters identify Paul as the Republican candidate who opposes U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press conducted Jan. 4-8, 2012 among 1,507 adults and 1,165 registered voters, finds even among Republican voters, many are unable to identify the state where Romney served as governor and are unfamiliar with Paul’s stance on Afghanistan.

Keep in mind, Romney’s supposed great weakness is that he’s from The Liberal State of Massachusetts™, and Paul’s supposed contribution to our august political discussion is that he’s anti-war. Kinda puts the kabosh on what Glenn Greenwald, in his statements about Ron Paul, has being blathering about, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, political reporter Chris Cillizza, at The Washington Post and who desperately needs to be whacked with the clue stick, scribbles something like a jeremiad except that it’s stupid:

Sigh. (Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised given how Jay Leno has built an entire segment around how little the American public knows about, well, anything.)

What the Pew numbers should do is serve as a reminder for all political analysts and political junkies that not everyone — in fact, almost no one — is like us.

The average voter is a low-information decider, making his or her choices about candidates based on often times incomplete or just plain wrong facts.

The analysis of political races — from the presidential race on down — often assumes a level of involvement and information that the average voter simply lacks.

Humbling? Yes. Important to remember when talking about how voters think and who they will ultimately choose? Yes.

(Dude, thank Tebow, most people are not like you. But I digress)

Does it ever occur to Cillizza and his colleagues that they themselves, as people whose job it is to convey information, might be in some teensy-weensy way responsible for voters making “choices about candidates based on often times incomplete or just plain wrong facts?” That this failure, in part, must be laid at your door?

Probably not. And this is yet another reason why you can’t have nice things.

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4 Responses to Political Reporting and Our Great Adult Educational Failure

  1. sciliz says:

    I’d actually really like to see some studies on what kinds of news coverage leads to the greatest gains in correct factual recall by viewers who are unmotivated to watch and have only a few minutes.
    I mean, yeah, they suck at conveying information, but sometimes I get the sense they’ve given up out of a sense of futility not out of malice.

  2. Tercelet says:

    I think the jibe at Greenwald here is off base. His argument is that Paul is the only candidate who is both taken seriously by anyone and publicly presents an anti-imperialist policy; and that this is an important thing to have influencing the debate — the same way (to go out on my own here a bit) that the Edwards candidacy in 2008 forced Obama to make a lot of those lefty-sounding promises that he’s trod all over since.

    Obviously this will have no influence on the people who aren’t paying attention to the race, which is the closest thing we have to an actual public discussion of policy. But why is that relevant? Those people are tuned out regardless of whether Paul’s in the debate or not. In fact, they may be paying more attention because there’s a candidate, however loopy or despicable, who’s saying at least something substantially different from the others.

    • But if Greenwald is right, then voters should be very aware of Paul’s stand. They’re not.

      • Tercelet says:

        I don’t think that follows. Sure, half to more of all voters are ignorant of the content of the primary debates — largely due to those horse-race frame; no one would ever even think of publishing a news story that actually did a substantive, critical interpretation of a candidate’s platform or policy positions (which is the real flaw with the ‘Truth Vigilantes’ issue, they don’t report on anything of substance, so truth is irrelevant anyway, but I digress). So Romney’s epithet (“Former MA Governor Mitt Romney” being a phrase that might actually appear in a newspaper) is more recognizable than Paul’s policy position.

        But all of that is irrelevant to whether Paul is shaping the debate in a useful way for those who are paying attention. The Greenwald argument is that Paul has changed X into a better X’. If many people remain totally clueless, this says nothing at all about the relative merits of X and X’. Additionally, the data are silent on whether Paul’s presence has increased the number of people paying attention.

        Finally, to the extent that a majority of Americans are ignorant of the content of the primary debates, I think that the only solid conclusion to be drawn from that fact would be that American public political discourse is dead. If a big honking actual stated policy difference–on matters of war no less!–isn’t enough to get at least half of Americans to have a clue what’s going on, then our democracy is probably terminal, Ron Paul or no — another point that says more about the country as a whole than about Ron Paul’s value in influencing the debate.

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