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Election 2012:
American media feed the frenzy, miss the issues

Tony Pederson
Tony Pederson

September 21, 2012

By Tony Pederson

Labor Day has passed, the political conventions are over and hurricane season is winding down.  September is usually identified as the time most Americans start paying attention to a presidential election and it would be helpful if the nation's news media also started paying attention to the issues that really matter to most Americans.

Instead, each campaign gaffe is greeted by the news media with gleeful coverage of unimportant details. President Obama's comment that "you didn't build that" in reference to small businesspeople is one example.  Rep. Todd Akin's idiotic comment on rape not only threw the U.S. Senate race in Missouri into turmoil but has created a national target for Democrats on the social issues.  These and other gaffes, as well as the ever-present poll numbers, provide quick and easy media moments. 

Both political parties pretend the presidential decision is a simple and painless one.  Both parties are promising the moon and the news media are even more compliant than usual.  There are talking heads, columnists and news analysts on the left and right who defend their partisan politics in an increasingly strident and condescending fashion.   

But the decisions in this election facing Americans aren't simple and painless.   On the key issues, both sides are hedging and, frankly, misleading the American people.  If media are serious about performing their historic watchdog function, here's a friendly recommendation about close scrutiny that should be given to both the Democratic and Republican campaigns on two issues of major concern to an aging population.

No. 1:  No one should seriously think that Medicare can continue as is in the next generation.   It is true Obamacare will be financed in part by more than $700 billion in Medicare cuts.  The result will be to prolong the life of the Medicare trust fund through reduced benefits and, almost certainly, fewer physicians playing the Medicare game.  It's also true that Gov. Mitt Romney's plan, as specified in the budget proposal by running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, involves market-oriented options that many people doubt.   Major changes are coming regardless of which candidate wins, and it's a certainty that many will not like the future.  Both campaigns should be held to explain how the respective plans would work, and what the specific effects would be.   

No. 2:  Who really can save Social Security as we know it?  We know that most Americans depend on Social Security for the majority of their retirement income, and yet major changes are coming.  This is especially important with private businesses reducing retirement plans and 401K benefits.  The realistic options are extending the age for full retirement, reducing the benefits, or raising more revenue through tax increases.   A recent Associated Press-GfK poll indicated a slight majority of Americans (53 percent) favor raising taxes and raising the age for eligibility rather than reducing the benefits.   

The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission, appointed by President Obama, covered both of these issues in detail.  The commission's report was issued in December 2010 and contained both sobering analysis and frightening predictions if action is not taken. That rational report is all but forgotten in the celebration of two “campaigns to nowhere.”   The reason is simple:  There's pain for all involved.   The political parties don't want to face it, and the news media continue to let the candidates and their fixers get away with facile explanations sadly lacking in detail.

There's no secret that U.S. media companies have struggled in the last 10 years with declining audiences and revenues.   There have been major reductions in the reporting and editing staffs of virtually every news organization.   Quality journalism costs money.  To get behind complex issues takes time for serious numbers crunching and thoughtful analysis.

Why do the media companies continue to waste time and precious resources on the quick and cheap sound bites, gaffes and horserace polling?  One reason is that media continue to assume that Americans have a shortened attention span and can't or won't absorb the complex issues.  And frankly, these issues are cheap and convenient to cover.

Too much is at stake for the future of the country for media to continue to ignore the urgency of this election.  Americans need and demand quality news coverage that explains the issues.  News organizations must provide Americans the meat and potatoes of the news, and put the rest in the hands of democracy.

Tony Pederson is professor and Belo Distinguished Chair in Journalism at SMU in Dallas.  He previously was executive editor and senior vice president of the Houston Chronicle.

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