The Uninformed Public: The Corrosive Effects of Media Racism & Electoral Fluff

Americans often like to think they have gotten beyond the issues of race and racism in the twenty-first century.  Think again.  Recent media commentaries and reporting on the third presidential debate and Obama’s large lead amongst the public are heavily flavored by a media that’s obsessed with the race card.  By continuing to cover the Bill Ayers "controversy," media outlets play right into the hands of Republican and conservative racists who’re determined to skirt discussion of the actual issues.  A recent New York Times lead article demonstrates this point well (October 15, 2008).  The piece, titled "What to Watch for During the Final Debate," contained the usual amount of electoral fluff and diversion from issues of substance.  Sustained attention was devoted to questions of style, including McCain’s promises to "whip" Obama’s "you-know-what" in Debate Three, and conjecture regarding Obama’s debate delivery: "It is possible that Mr. Obama could make a blunder, or appear too cocky.  Or that Mr. McCain could find a way to get under his skin." 


But the media’s low-brow content extended beyond such trivialities.  In regards to the race obsession, the same New York Times story devoted just two sentences (only 40 words or 5% of the article) to issues of political substance such as the mortgage crisis and the Iraq war.  In contrast, 225 words (20% of the article) were devoted to the issue of Obama’s ties to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers.  The New York Times also featured numerous other stories (on Oct. 15) on the question of race, including: "Candid Voices on Race and the Campaign," "In Voting Booth, Race May Play a Bigger Role," "In Generation Seen as Colorblind, Race Matters," "In South, Uncertainty Starts a Racial Identity," and "Hot Topic is Secondary in Part of Colorado."


To be sure, there is evidence that race is an important factor in many voters’ minds.  While over two-thirds of Americans questioned feel that the U.S. is "ready for a black president," 23% of voters age 30 and over, and 34% of younger voters disagree.  While there’s nothing wrong with media outlets focusing on race, to do so while neglecting discussion of policy issues is a toxic combination.  Discussion of race, in this context, becomes little more than an issue of identity politics.  Does anyone on the Left honestly believe that Obama’s status as an African American ensures that he will be strongly committed to strengthening social welfare programs targeted at the poorest of the poor?  Obama has given little indication that he supports a return to New Deal or Great Society levels of welfare spending.  The significance of the color of Obama’s skin, in light of this reluctance, amounts to little more than electoral fluff. 


The media’s obsession with race-based identity politics constitutes a serious diversion from real issues.  As a result, voters remain uninformed in their assessments of the candidates.  On the one hand, the public rightly rejects the negative-campaigning approach.  Racist ads suggesting Obama is an Ayers-affiliated terrorist are viewed with contempt by voters, a majority of whom explain that they 1. are not influenced by such attacks, and 2. feel McCain should stick to actual policy proposals.


On the other hand, voters have been left with little real substance with which to judge the candidates, considering the media’s vacuous coverage.  Candidates refuse to discuss the issues in favor of glittering generalities in their ads and during the debates.  Similarly, most media coverage of elections focuses on individual personality traits and horse-race aspects of the campaign (who’s ahead and behind this week?), rather than policy.  These trends have poisonous effects on the public.  Prospective voters express their dismay with negative campaigning that neglects substance, but they continue to describe political candidates using personality based descriptions.  Obama is most often referred to by the public as "confident," "intelligent," and "presidential" while McCain is seen as "old," "confident," "condescending," and "angry."


When the public does voice its opinion on issues such as Iraq and the "War on Terror," their opinions seem more reflective of media spin than reality.  In regards to Iraq, majorities problematically see McCain as the most qualified, knowledgeable candidate.  An October poll from the Pew Research Center, for example, finds that voters more often support McCain as able to make "wise decisions" about "foreign policy" and about Iraq.  This should not be surprising, considering that media pundits traditionally frame McCain as stronger and more experienced in foreign policy.  This image of McCain, however, is extremely disturbing considering just how little he knows about the major issues.


McCain has gone on record with numerous blunders regarding Iraq.  A few examples are provided below:


-          McCain claims that the Sunni Awakening (in which the Sunni community allied against Al Qaeda in Iraq) was a product of the success of the "surge," even though the Sunni awakening began in 2005 and 2006, while the "surge" did not begin until early 2007 (and its claimed effects were not offered until late 2007). 


-          McCain claims that the U.S. must remain indefinitely in Iraq, unless Americans wish to surrender the country to Al Qaeda.  Such warnings have been rejected in numerous studies, which show that at its height (prior to the Sunni Awakening), Al Qaeda and foreign fighters constituted no more than 5% of all resistance in Iraq.  Most recently, the New York Times reported that the domestic arm of Al Qaeda in Iraq was "severely degraded, if not crushed altogether" by mid-to-late 2008.


-          McCain has suggested that Iran and Al Qaeda are in alliance, a preposterous claim that enjoys no credible evidence.  McCain’s incompetence on this issue was most apparent when he repeated this claim in a press conference with fellow hawk Senator Joe Lieberman, only to be corrected in mid-speech.


-          Finally, McCain has taken it upon himself to travel to Iraq, to prove that the violence there is not as bad as everyone suggests.  His stroll through a Baghdad market was intended to demonstrate that Americans are "not getting the full picture" in terms of the security improvements that have been made.  In reality, McCain came off as thoroughly disconnected from Iraqis’ suffering with this propaganda stunt.  In order to travel to the market, U.S. soldiers redirected human traffic from the area, and prohibited non-Americans from entering.  Snipers were posted on roofs, with three Blackhawk helicopters and two Apache gun ships flying above to provide security.  If that weren’t enough, McCain had strapped on a bullet-proof vest, and was accompanied by 100 U.S. troops who dispatched armored personnel carriers to ensure his security.  Unsurprisingly, McCain’s hour-long visit was viewed with contempt by local merchants, who saw the event more as a PR stunt than an accurate reflection of conditions on the ground.


As many critics know, McCain’s staggering incompetence on foreign policy and Iraq has largely been ignored in the media.  Reporters and editors are more content to focus on issues of character and speech delivery than educate Americans on the issues at hand.  They’d rather focus on racist Republican attacks than take a positive approach to educating the public on issues.  We should expect little deviation from this pattern as the 2008 election enters its closing weeks.



Anthony DiMaggio teaches Developing World Politics and American Government at Illinois State University.  He is the author of: Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror," which will be released in paperback this December.  He can be reached at: [email protected]

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