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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Another take on Ron Paul in the media

I came across a commentary by Brian Montopoli at the CBS blog Political Hotsheet which makes some interesting points. He notes that his own coverage of the Iowa straw polls has been criticized by Paul supporters who objected to the candidate not getting enough space, accompanied by the inevitable "RON PAUL 2012!" sign-off. Many commentators would and have stopped there, as if Ron Paul having a following with a large share of verbose and vehement supporters somehow makes up for the media ignoring him. But Montopoli goes on to consider things a little more carefully:
Critics of the media coverage of Paul have a point. Because many reporters see the Texas congressman as having little chance of winning the nomination, he is often left out of the discussion - even as an establishment figure like Jon Huntsman, who badly trails Paul in the polls, is included.  
Here's how political reporters see it: Paul is the only prominent candidate articulating a strong libertarian position. Though he is fairly well known, his support appears to top out at less than 20 percent. Ultimately, Republicans will likely coalesce around one of the other candidates, whose largely-similar positions represent more mainstream Republicanism. Paul's relatively strong standing in early polls, this argument goes, will fade as the field narrows around one or two more mainstream candidates.  
That's almost certainly true. But here's the problem: Most reporters also don't expect Bachmann to win the nomination, either. Bachmann cannot compete with Romney or Perry in terms of fundraising, and she is widely seen as too far to the right to get nominated by a party where most voters' primary concern is finding someone who can beat President Obama. Yet while Paul was shut out of the Sunday news shows after his near-straw poll victory, Bachmann was invited into almost all of them - and is now being treated by the media as one of the three frontrunners for the nomination.   
Why? For starters, Bachmann has a better - though still slim - chance to take the nomination. But also, she's simply a better story - controversial, telegenic, and relatively new to the national scene. Paul, meanwhile, is on his third presidential run, and he's saying the same things he's been saying for decades - which is admirable, but not ideal in a media landscape where freshness is what gets attention.
Poor Ron Paul. He's been known as a libertarian nutter for so long, and now he's not crazy enough!  Because his particular brand of controversial viewpoints is not fresh-- it's the same standard he's been bearing for years. His consistency works against him rather than for him. As for being telegenic....yeah, I suppose not.  Paul is looking pretty decrepit these days and he has never been the best speaker. But I thought these reports were supposed to be about who the front-runners are; not who is prettiest. Is Montopoli saying otherwise? Not quite:
Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton, who described the coverage in the wake of the straw poll as "very disappointing," told CBS News that the national media "have an obligation to present Dr. Paul fairly and robustly to the American people."  
"I realize that he has been saying the same things to the inner circle of the journalist elite, that's not new, but it's very, very new to the American people," said Benton. While Paul has high name identification, he continued, "A lot of people still have not heard his message." 
There's an irony here: Paul may not be offering up new ideas, but he is the only mainstream candidate articulating significantly different policy positions than his rivals. Paul's opposition to U.S. military intervention abroad has significant support within the GOP, and his live-and-let-live philosophy is the animating idea behind the Tea Party. Don't those ideas deserve to be part of the discussion? The media's focus on Bachmann and dismissal of Paul is a demoralizing illustration of the fact that members of the media - who, it should be noted, often make their coverage decisions based on audience demand - are often more interested in stylistic differences than substantive ones. 
All this doesn't change the fact that Ron Paul is very unlikely to be the next president of the United States. Or that the straw poll itself is nearly meaningless - it's an Iowa Republican party fundraiser in which the candidates, Paul included, essentially buy their votes. But if reporters are going to focus so aggressively on Bachmann - and treat her straw poll win as meaningful - then Paul deserves, at the very least, not to be ignored.
I understand that Michele Bachmann is interesting because she's so.....bizarre. I do, really. But when bizarre people get attention on TV, it should be simply because of that. Hey, here's this new crazy evangelical lady who doesn't know what she's talking about, running for president!  You can give bizarre people media attention without pretending that they're more electable-- look what happened to Howard Dean. Did anyone declare him a "front-runner" while incessantly playing clips his ill-chosen battle cry? Did they do so in the process of obscuring actual front-runners?  Not from what I recall.

So what's different?  Has the media just become so thoroughly jaded about this particular election, so sure that the Republican race doesn't matter, that they're just no longer interested in portraying the facts when they could report on the crazy?  It's looking like it.

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