10 January 2008

Not Just Baseball

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

On Monday morning, 7 January, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a story about the controversy and allegations regarding the use of illegal, performance-enhancing drugs by baseball player Roger Clemens. NPR’s story took an important but all-too-rare step: it criticized the nature of a particular piece of journalism, an interview of Clemens by Mike Wallace. For commentary on this issue, NPR reported as follows:

John Sawatsky, a professional journalist who teaches reporters how to do interviews, says he was disturbed by Wallace’s lack of follow-up questions with Clemens.

For instance, Wallace brought up the fact that Clemens’ buddy Andy Pettitte admitted McNamee had injected him with steroids, just as McNamee had testified in the Mitchell Report.

“Andy’s case is totally separate,” Clemens responded.

Sawatsky said Wallace should have asked why it was separate.

“Wallace never asked, ‘What is separate about it?’ He just dropped it,” Sawatsky said.

Of course, this is baseball, not politics – so it’s much easier to ask such questions in that context. For a countervailing example, NPR also ran a story yesterday, 9 January, about the upcoming primary in South Carolina, talking to two local people about the challenges candidates will face in that state. One issue in particular caught my attention: commentator Scott Huffmon’s remarks that South Carolinians are very concerned about illegal immigration – an issue that may negatively affect the chances of Republican candidate Senator John McCain, who is seen as too liberal on this matter.

And so you say: South Carolina is concerned about illegal immigration as a priority issue? According to StateMaster.com, South Carolina ranks 29th in estimates of illegal immigrants per capita – lower than Arkansas and just ahead of Iowa. (Looked at in total numbers of people, it remains 29th, too.) Even NPR, in a story they ran in June 2005 about illegal immigrants in the United States, did not list South Carolina among the top states facing this problem, although neighboring North Carolina is mentioned. NPR did not pursue this line of questioning, did not ask Huffmon why illegal immigration is a hot-button issue there, and did not push back on the idea that a state with little in the way of an illegal immigration problem finds this such an animating political issue.

It is a shame, because it would have been more than just interesting: it might have provided genuine insight into McCain’s chances in South Carolina, or might have helped explain a subject that has been a consistent feature of the race thus far, despite being an issue of great consequence in only a few states. Are South Carolinians more fearful for their jobs – and are illegal immigrants the people to fear? Is concern about illegal immigration code for NIMBY-type race and class issues – and have the demographics in South Carolina shifted enough to make these concerns well-founded? It seems crucial that we understand why people believe any issue to be so important to their lives, and that journalists push back on and explore the underlying facts in order to understand voters’ motivations. Doing so would give all the candidates – not just John McCain – opportunities to address issues more substantively (rather than just emotionally) and in a way that reflects the concerns of the voters of South Carolina and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, that such statements go unchallenged is consistent with the general nature of coverage of the political process and the primaries (and caucus) thus far. As always, we face a reduction to very basic issues and themes, combined with a simplistic flip-floppery from one candidate to the other in response to the prevailing winds. Nothing expresses this more than the wide coverage of Senator Hillary Clinton’s very narrow victory in New Hampshire. This was hardly an upset, as the New York Times called it – an upset of what, exactly? – any more than Senator Barack Obama’s victory in Iowa meant he had sewn up the Democratic nomination or conclusively beat Clinton for the nomination. As for the coverage of Clinton’s teary, emotional plea, well: it’s a legitimate news story, but should not be allowed to crowd out the bigger need to explore the underlying concerns of voters and the philosophy that underscores the plans of the candidates.

If we are to elect a new president who will truly lead our nation to a better, peaceful, prosperous future, we need a journalism, and a citizenry, capable of looking beyond the obvious. Beyond a candidate’s cry. Beyond the simplistic evocations of “hope.” We need journalists – and an electorate – who can, yes, “connect” with the politicians, but who can carefully (re)examine their own fears and expectations, too. Because we need to keep reminding ourselves that the 2008 election is as much a referendum on us – on who we are as Americans, and what we believe in for ourselves and the world – as it is about the person we choose to fill the office of President of the United States of America.


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