The media's Massa problem
Matthew Yglesias on the coverage of Eric Massa:
I really think that political journalists who’ve spent more than 20 minutes over the past 24 hours covering the Eric Massa story need to turn the TV off, turn the BlackBerry off, turn the Twitter off, shut everything down, go to a nice quiet room, take a deep breath, look in the mirror and ask themselves why they got into this business.
How many reporters are covering this story? What are the odds that some important fact of Massa’s life will go unrevealed if you do not devote your talents and energies to looking into it? Isn’t it more likely that you’re going to commit useful journalism by looking into something else? Anything else? Like, literally, anything else? It seems to me that at the margin pretty much any use of a journalist’s time would have a greater social value than further Massa reporting. A nap, even. Get well-rested for tomorrow’s goofy story.
You can go too far talking about this in terms of individual journalists. Competitive pressures are competitive pressures, and individual journalists get assignments from their editors. But the point still stands.
I'd only add this: The indictment isn't that Massa turned out to be a nonstory. It would be much worse, in fact, if he'd been a "story." If he'd done more to attack the health-care bill, or offered specific stories of members of the House leadership doing terrible things like trying to add elements to the legislation in order to secure Massa's vote. That would've been a "big" story and no one would feel silly for covering it. But it actually would've been worse.
The media are so focused on the undecideds and unlikely opponents of the world -- the Dennis Kucinichs and Joe Liebermans -- that all the American people ever hear are these self-important chin-strokers hammering legislation. And when it's not them, it's the serious partisans: Members of the leadership and so forth. But it's not because these folks know the most about the legislation, or have the most informative take. It's because these people's statements are the most newsworthy because their votes are the most important.
But that means we center our coverage around the most egotistical and politically motivated legislators, and then we let them explain the substance of policy through their skewed and self-interested lenses. Of course, the people tuning into our shows or reading us don't know that we're doing this to get insight into these legislator's votes and that they should ignore the analysis, as it's coming from some of the least credible players in Congress.
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
March 11, 2010; 12:48 PM ET
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