How do you get people to watch or read the political news that effects their lives so much, and how do you drive them away from it? The conventional wisdom is that it's the people's fault, that the people just don't watch the news because it doesn't include enough sex-scandals, and images of Britney Spears dancing for the camera. But the conventional wisdom probably disserves us.
Ever notice how unpopular those tabloid magazines are? Sure, there are enough people who read them that supermarkets can sell them at the checkout counters. But even though these magazines are cover-to-cover composed of the stupid fluff all the conventional-wisdom bearing capitalist wisemen keep telling us the people really want from their media & news (often implying, or outright stating, that the reason most people can never give a damn about the news is that they're just so deathly moronic) most people know those tabloid magazines are crap, most people don't read them, and most people probably can't identify more than one or two people they've known who has been a regular reader of them.
Check out this as an example of the stakes of the cost of low interest in the news, first, before we settle for a smarmy answer as to the why. In this Washington Monthly post, the writer excerpted part of a NYT survey showing that most people feel that the media has been easier on John McCain than on Obama and Hillary. Most people who consume a lot of political news (who certainly are not most of all people out there) probably have noticed this, and probably have noticed that the media treats Hillary Clinton worst of all three of them. But then there was this comment on the Washington Monthly post from a reader who followed the link to the NYT survey:
But the poll also shows that most people don't notice a difference in the way the media treats the different candidates. How do you explain that?
The answer, of course, is not that people are so stupid that the same people think they see bias but they don't see bias at the same time and in the same instance. Instead it has to do with a simple problem with reporting on statistics- namely, using the words/phrases "most" and "most people" to discuss statistics gets confusing, if you use it to refer to both pluralities and majorities. Check out how this applies here. First of all, most- as in a majority of poll respondents- probably don't consume enough news to feel they can claim they see a difference. Sure, they may have seen some piece that looked really positive about McCain or about Obama- but that was the last time they watched (or read) more than 1-2 seconds of election news all-at-once in the last 6 months, so how can they feel justified in saying they notice a difference?
But "most people," as in a plurality of those who felt they could call the media biased in favor of one candidate picked John McCain as that candidate. The problem was that the Washington Monthly commenter was equating "most," as in a pluarlity who chose one from among three candidates, with "most," as in a majority of poll respondents- and that made the commenter sound as if he had a point about anomalous responses when he really hadn't.
Another thing that adds to the discrepancy between the pluarilty who can pick one caniddate and the majority who can't (or who can't recognize that favoring one candidate is called "bias") is often the media favoritism is so subtle and psychological, that a lot of media bias is stuff most people would just dismiss. So to give a good answer to the bias question, you really have to watch enough news not only to see the news talking about all three candidates, but also to know the news media's usual way of conducting themselves. If you don't you can't see how they're really scamming us with it- you won't recognize that it's not normal to spend so much time obsessing over Hillary's laugh and that only non-white male war-veteran Republicans are treated to this examination of their personal habits by Christ Matthews and the rest.
So to get back to the original point of my post- why don't people watch enough news to know when and how it's screwing them? I think contrary to the c.w., probably if the coverage really did a good job of explaining and focusing on the issues, more people would tune in, because they'd easier see what's at stake and want to know more about how the election could effect them. But that isn't what they get at all! Instead, they get annoying crap- they tune out because the news presenters and pundits aren't likeable enough for non-news junkies to subject themselves to that (put your four-letter-word of choice here). I certainly wouldn't want to hang out with any news commentators at a bar- what normal person obsesses over a candidate's laugh or some detail of their behavior for the length of an entire televised news piece? People are cynical about the political news for the same kinds of reasons they're cynical about most of politics- the powers that be will never let them get straight, easy answers about what's going on and what's important from the news- instead, they'll just subject them to a sleazy run-around delievered by grown-up versions of the kids you knew in school growing up who were the most cowardly, bird-brained busy-body gossips. Some people may answer "Well why don't they read the NYT?" or some other news source that is at least a little more substantive. But most people in fact aren't exposed to news sources like that (some people may be surprised at just how many people aren't really familiar with the New York Times) and were never really big on reading to begin with.
That doesn't mean that those people don't count or that they're not smart enough to understand the news, it just means that something in their upbringing or education poorly served them, so that they became discouraged or bored with the idea of reading or uninterested in the news. It's very wrong for any of us to treat those people as if there is something wrong with them, when obviously the news they rejected was news that was full of crap and that wouldn't get straight to the point to introduce topics in a clear way and explain why those topics were important. Hell, even a lot of you politicized liberals fail to quickly explain how the Republicans are racists or robbers, when the Republicans never waste any time calling you all traitors. Who are a lot of people going to think has the courage of their convictions, when most of you won't even say what you think is so wrong with the Republicans and make an effort to explain how you know it?