Saturday, March 29, 2008

Paging the Public Editor

I'm not doing a lot of politics on the blog these days--not doing much at all.
But I was in Oakland yesterday and saw the overflow crowd at the Obama rally outside the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial listening to Obama speech on loudspeakers. And I heard from a colleague who got in that the place was packed to the rafters. And I had already heard from someone else that all tickets to the event were gone within hours on Thursday.

So when I opened the New York Times this morning, I was pretty surprised to find a photo on the front page that featured one lonely "O'Bama" supporter across from a solid flank of Hillary supporters. Can't deviate from the reigning media narrative that, as the caption says, " While Hillary Clinton leads in the polls in Pennsylvania, Barack Obama has his supporters, too." Here's the photo and the story and here's the "Today's Paper" page online where you can see an image of the front page of the print edition (at least for a few more hours).

Now if I didn't know the Pittsburgh neighborhood where this photo was taken well and if I didn't happen to be there yesterday or see the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette--so I'm describing 90+% of the readership of the New York Times print edition--I surely would not have known that right behind the photographer were thousands of people gathered to hear Obama speak. Here's the Post-Gazette photo that does a better job capturing what was going on in Pittsburgh yesterday.

We hear a lot about the media treating Obama (and McCain) with kid gloves. But I think this picture in the Times is evidence of the more insidious problem with media coverage of our elections: it's not just that policy issues get pushed aside for "process" stories. Even in the "process" stories, once the press has settled on a narrative, a kind of groupthink seems to take over until some radical change occurs to shift the narrative. A primary can change the narrative--if Obama ends up winning Pennsylvania (even by 20 votes), watch for the stories about how Clinton wasn't as strong here as everyone thought. (If Clinton wins Pennsylvania [even by 20 votes], then the conventional wisdom will nod and point out how Obama can't seem to win the big states.)

If you don't think the groupthink is real and that it has worked on the readership of the major media outlets, take a look at the reader comments on the NYT politics blog about Casey's endorsement of Obama. I was astounded by how many commentators took Casey to task for going against "the will of the people" in Pennsylvania by supporting Obama rather than Clinton. A few of the commentators pointed out that PA has yet to hold its primary and that polling is not the same as voting. But they were like a chorus of the sane drowned out by those who have already put PA in the Clinton column. Now I realize that a lot of this complaint had to do with some convoluted argument that the Obama and Clinton camps are having over whether superdelegates should follow the electorate and which electorate they should follow and that some of the criticism aimed at Casey was really aimed at the Obama folks for supposed hypocrisies of this or that sort. But I just couldn't get over the simple fact that there seem to be a hefty group of people out there for whom Hillary Clinton has already won the PA primary.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about this! I emailed the public editor at the NYT as soon as I saw that picture. I was there in the enormous line and inside the packed hall. The picture is particularly misleading in that it makes it look as though the Hillary signs just keep going in both directions, when in fact that's it. There were approximately 15-20 Clinton supporters there.

I found these pictures on flickr from the event that show a lot more perspective of what was happening there:

Andy Walpole said...

Yes, interesting editorial line... write the story to fit the picture... (or search hard for the right picture to fit the editorial line)...