The media circus surrounding Republican presidential candidates this weekend was as silly as it was misleading. Texas Governor Rick Perry threw his hat in the ring just as Michele Bachmann squeaked out a victory in the Iowa Straw Poll and the media worked itself into quite the lather dissecting the candidates’ speeches and deciding who was the most “electable.”
Yet for all the media din surrounding the Republican race this weekend, one name was curiously absent from the conversation. Twelve-time Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who placed second to Bachmann in Iowa’s straw poll by less than a percentage point, was barely mentioned by most pundits and talk shows. While Bachmann made the circuits, appearing on five different Sunday morning talk shows, Paul wasn’t invited to a single one. The media’s self-prohibition of Paul coverage was so bad that even John Stewart had to ask, “What happened?”
Foundational communication scholar Bernard Cohen famously quipped that, “[t]he media does not tell us what to think. The media tells us what to think about.” This adage has evolved into what has become known as the “agenda-setting” theory. The theory holds that whatever the media spends its time talking about is what the public will consider important due to simple exposure. In the context of discussing potential presidential candidates, if the media talks about you — positively or negatively — you will receive increased attention and recognition. The opposite of this is equally true: If the media chooses to exclude you from conversation, individuals who only casually follow politics will have no idea who you are.
Now look, I get it. Ron Paul, for all his internet popularity, is a candidate without too much hope of getting elected. Although his core beliefs of freedom from governmental intrusion ring true with many citizens, his methods of achieving his goals — like shuttering federal agencies overnight and closing down military bases overseas with the stroke of a pen — push away the average voter worried about such drastic action. That said, surely pointing out that corporations are not people is far less crazy than Bachmann’s promise to reinstate Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or Perry’s efforts to pray the economy into well-being. Yet the crazy seems to get all the face-time.
The media’s excuse so far has been just that, arguing that Paul’s un-electability makes coverage of him irrelevant. But exercising personal judgment over whether a candidate for public office is worth reporting on, especially in the face of demonstrable popular support for the candidate, is the antithesis of what reporters are supposed to do.
Regardless of what political consultants or talking heads may think of his “electability,” Paul’s showing in Iowa was formidable. He pulled in 28% of the vote, doubling his next closest competitor Tim Pawlenty. Even if we take into account the fact that Ames is more an indication of candidates' organizational strength than their voter popularity, the media blackout on Paul is unexplainable and inexcusable. Surely, his ability to “organize” nearly eight-times better than the media’s chosen front runner Mitt “Corporations are People” Romney is worth a mention or two?
I’m glad to see this intentional ignorance is at least being called out by some in the press this go-around. If nothing else, this blatant snubbing should call peoples’ attention to the inherent bias of media organizations. No, I’m not suggesting there is some centralized conspiracy by either a liberal or conservative “media” organizing to brainwash the American public, but boy is it hard to deny that the table is tilted against some and in favor of others.
What can we do about it? Unfortunately, not a lot. The best opposition to media bias is to hit the media where it hurts, their pockets. Stop watching a source that is engaging in selective reporting and deprive them of some ad revenue (it worked on Glenn Beck). For a more realistic option, do your part to spread awareness. The media is moving more and more in the direction of social news towards digital word-of-mouth. So express your discontent by being vocal and contacting media outlets and friends and raising a media ruckus.
At the very least, let this be a stark reminder of the difference between reality and the media’s representation of reality. For every Ron Paul ignored, there are 10 stories of corruption, injustice, and abuse that never make prime-time. Educate yourself and spread your knowledge as best you can to those wanting to listen and change what the media can and cannot tell you to think about.
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