Jewish World Review June 29, 2000 / 26 Sivan, 5760
The newcomer would learn all sorts of things about Bush and the death penalty. He would learn that Texas led the country in executions. He would learn that DNA testing had cleared a number of people convicted of death penalty crimes, and that a study of death penalty sentences found that more than two-thirds that are appealed are eventually overturned because of errors in the ways in which the cases were investigated or tried. He would learn that such findings as these had moved the governor of Illinois to suspend the death penalty in his state--but that Gov. Bush had stubbornly refused to back off of his support for capital punishment.
What the newcomer would not learn is that, in fact, the question of Bush's support for the death penalty--or for that matter, the question of the death penalty itself--was not of the slightest interest to the great majority of voters. Support for the death penalty is consistent and relatively stable; although it has declined somewhat during recent months of heavy anti-death penalty news coverage, it still is above 60 percent in every public opinion poll. What is more, the death penalty is simply not of voting concern to almost everybody. A look through 16 recent national polls questioning adults as to the most important issues facing the nation finds the death penalty unmentioned. The voters know that the president has almost nothing to do with capital punishment, and that, in this election anyway, there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the two major candidates on the issue.
All of this illustrates a curious thing that has happened to presidential elections--the rise of the media as a major force, perhaps the major force, in defining what are and what are not issues. With the passing of party bosses and a long run of public complacency, the press has been able to fill a vacuum, and has established itself in presidential years as not only the Great Mentioner but the Great Decider. In their secret hearts, I think, most journalists feel this is not a bad thing at all. For the good of the nation, someone has to decide, and who better than the disinterested guardians of a free society--us?
But there are several problems here. One is that, as surveys show, the media are far more homogenous than the general population in their views, and these views are far more liberal. Another is that the media's role in choosing and framing issues conflicts with their role in objectively informing the public. The invention of the Bush death penalty issue is typical of the media's habit of creating issues that skew coverage to (a) advance liberal causes and/or (b) favor the Democrat and disfavor the Republican .
Journalists like to think that they think (and write) without bias. But everyone else knows that this is absurd. What journalists choose and how journalists frame inescapably arises out of what journalists believe. And, as a group, journalists believe in liberalism and in electing Democrats. Consider two election-year bows to bigotry, George Bush's visit to Bob Jones University and Al Gore's visit with Al Sharpton. The first was deemed a big issue, with 884 Nexis hits to date, and the tone of coverage overwhelmingly critical of Bush. The second was deemed much less an issue--only 323 hits and relatively little criticism. Yet pandering to Sharpton would strike most people, I think, as at least as bad as pandering to Bob Jones. Who decided one mattered a lot and the other not so much? Just we few, our little objective unbiased selves, bringing you the issues that are fit to
06/21/00:Gore and the Goodies