Thursday, October 30, 2008

Media Bias and the Nature of News

A lot of hoopla has been generated by the findings of a recent Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism report where it was determined that McCain has received more unfavorable coverage than Obama. As has been widely discussed, the equally interesting news is that Obama has not been covered favorably... just more so in comparison to the negativity associated to the McCain campaign coverage.

But instead of rehashing and re-reporting what has already been widely discussed, I would like to introduce a tried and true lens on the media that for some reason seems to have escaped the discussions I've heard around this report: The nature of news.

News is a change from the status quo, and is usually either a problem or a solution. As we all can probably agree, there are many more problems than solutions in our world (heck, most of our lives are dedicated to solving problems, and there seems to be no end to the stream of problems). And, if we roughly round up that the world is comprised of 95% problems and 5% solutions, then the news is 95% problems and 5% solutions. Which means, of course, that news is inherently negative -- by a large proportion. Some examples of how this reality exerts itself include:
  • If you're near a city and watch your local news -- and your city is anything like Philadelphia, where I live -- you're going to see a preponderance of problems, couched as news. However, they do ensure a positive story for the final 5 minutes in an attempt to reduce suicide amongst their viewing audience.
  • If you're running a war, and the war is going badly, you're going to see a ton of news coverage focusing on all the problems, deaths, losses... and wonder why the media is so anti-patriotic so as to give the public a slanted view on all the activities happening in the war. Donald Rumsfeld consistently lamented about the media's coverage of the Iraq War.
  • Many more people read the obituaries in the newspaper than the birth notices.
  • A scandal is news; a well-run organization that simply meets expectations flies beneath the radar.
On the flip side, if someone discovers the cure to cancer, then that, too, would be news. But that falls into that 5% category.

So, is it any surprise that the campaign with more problems would equate to more news? Through this lens, of course not. In fact, if we agree on the media's natural bias towards news (compounded with news' inherent negative bias), this Pew study wouldn't have even had to be conducted.

No, it's not fair that when you're down, and help is needed the most, that the forces of nature do not work toward your advantage. But every system we put in place that is "self-managed" tends to mirror the harsh, efficient processes of nature and evolution: the weak get weaker and the strong get stronger.

Now, if the McCain campaign wants to advocate that someone or something should intervene to help ensure more even-handedness in political coverage, that's fine -- but now we're talking about introducing socialism into the media. Every time we feel that natural forces are too harsh and too unfair, the alternative is to appeal to our higher civic aspirations to intervene and temper the natural response in deference for the greater good. And this process is socialism.

When I started this article, I did not intend to conflate this Pew study with the McCain's campaign strategy of insinuating that Obama is a socialist, but the irony is just too rich to resist.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Obama's Infomercial - Live Blogging

I've been so curious about this 30 minute commercial. What was it going to be? How would it be produced? Would it be successful? Or would it be a risk to his campaign? I'm going to find out in real-time along with you... I'm going to live blog the 30 minute spot:

8:04: I am a bit surprised how infomercially this infomercial has started out feeling like.
8:05: Going through his policies in person. This is a little less infomercially. Did he say $200k and not $250k for the tax increase line?
8:08: Targeting the elder class. Pills, medical insurance, healthcare. This is the health care vignette set up so he can give us his policy statements on healthcare. OK, so what I'm seeing is the production strategy: Provide a "real life" example from "real America" and then cut to policy proposals to address the issues outlined... um, nope. That's not how he's doing it...
8:10: Now we're onto energy independence. Did he really skip his proposals on health care that would have tied to that old couple struggling?
8:11: Looking presidential now... he's moving to Iraq now. His favorite topic in my view. Yes, that goes against the conventional wisdom that foreign policy is not Obama's strong smoke, but it's clearly where he is his most passionate. He sees himself as Reagan II. I know that might seem odd based on what we have heard and seen from the media thus far. But that's his model. The unknown guy with "no experience" who surprises everyone with his savvy, strategy, and popularity.
8:13: Widow with mortgage story in New Mexico vignette. As my friend just texted me "Not feelin' it."
8:16: Now we're onto the bio. Talking about Dad. But that came and went quickly. Now back to his convention speech. Now back to in-person Barack. Honestly, I'm a bit surprised around the lack of flow and structure of this infomercial.
8:18: Now back to bio. Talking about Mom now. The bio stuff feels less infomercially than the case studies. Hmmm... now we're back to his original speech when he jumped into the race. Oh, OK. His mom is part of his original stump speech, which brings it back to the mom meme.
8:19: Michele and daughters. Family man mini-segment. Obama@home. Now we're back to stump speeches, and Dick Durbin and Claire McCaskill commentary about how great he is.
8:21: Hey, it's Joe the Biden talking about how Obama was as a Senator.
8:21: Oh, now it's Obama talking about how great Biden was as a Senator. How mutual.
8:22: Another case study/vignette. I'm getting structure whiplash. Plant workers. Now they're struggling to make ends meet. Lamenting the working man's plight... lack of security, people's reliance on big corporations that are caring less and less about them. This is a bit cliche' but I think it works for a lot of Americans in the rust belt where Obama would benefit from a few extra hearts and minds.
8:24: Quick flip to foreign policy. Now we're talking about Taliban, Afghanistan, and the family of a soldier. Once again, a bit surprised around the lack of thematic continuity.
8:26: Bill Richardson (with beard and mustache) endorses how unusually positive Obama is, and then Obama promises us that he's not a perfect man and will not be a perfect President. But he will ask us to help us help him with "our" Democracy.
8:27: Now it looks like a live presentation (is it?). Back to closing arguments. Economic messages prevail. This might be where the Bill Clinton reveal happens... (?)
8:29: Yup, he's in Florida. I think it's live, crowd goes nuts (though it's indoors).
8:29: Biden comes out, but no Clinton! Bummer, I thought I was going to scoop the media on that. Oh well.
8:30: It's over.

I am underwhelmed by the infomercial. I do not think it did any real damage to the Obama campaign, and the advantage of being on prime time TV can probably only help if not just for generic 'exposure bias' reasons.

But I have to say that for a campaign that has been so savvy with its messages and presentation, this infomercial felt too much like, well, an infomercial. And, I am a bit surprised by the lack of narrative, story line, crescendo, or any kind of storyboard that I could identify. Instead, it felt like a series of scenes that, while all part of the same Obama message, did not create an Obama story -- neither his personal story nor his policy story. To me, it felt like a hodgepodge of both, speckled with case studies that seem all too caricatured -- which left me with very little emotional impact as a viewer.

Is it possible that live blogging has actually distracted me such that I've missed some deeper meaning? Possibly. After all, this is my first live blogging experience. But barring that, the only advantage I see for Obama is if enough undecideds sat through the policy bits and learned something new. And, possibly, our infomercial culture might be more in tune with this marketing approach than I am. I cannot disregard this possibility.

Important stylistic note: there was nothing negative. Nothing about McCain/Palin. And no competitive differentiators outlined. It was, at its core, an infomercial.

Funny, I never thought of Obama as an informercially kind of guy. But, then again, maybe this is me projecting my biases too broadly. I look forward to reading the reviews and analysis -- and seeing if there was any "instant polling" done.

9:30PM - One hour later - anecdotes are coming in. An elder-class citizen was completely persuaded to switch her vote from McCain to Obama based on the infomercial, and a 30-something male was "brought to tears" by the stories portrayed in the spot. So, I have learned at least one thing already -- presuming these two people are any indication of a broader reception of the ad -- I am not the guy you want to advise or produce your infomercial spots.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Of Candidates and Parties

There are many ways from which to view the 2008 presidential race:  Ideology, experience, competence, race, leadership skills, foreign policy, Iraq policy, etc.   And while the rhetoric on the stump certainly makes this sound like a traditional liberal vs. conservative race, it's really not.  Both candidates at their core are not "party men" -- they are both mavericks that cherry-pick from their party's menu, but are all too interested and willing to buck party orthodoxy where their respective idea of "common sense" prevails. 

Races with as much as stake as a presidential race are naturally going to divide the competitors.  After all, differentiators are the pillars of the brand of each ticket.  So, all we will be exposed to as voters are where the candidates differ.   But if we look between the pillars, there is a lot of evidence that we are voting this year for two individuals, not two parties.

How many times have you heard on the stump, from either candidate, their self-identified party affiliation?  While understandable in the McCain campaign (due to the tarnishing of the Republican brand under President Bush), it is fairly astonishing how Obama also likes to distance himself from his party.  Both McCain and Obama are running on personal brand vs. party brand. 

There are some specific exceptions to this, some of which are frankly bewildering.  Today, for example, John McCain vouched that he holds himself close to the Republican philosophy on Meet the Press.  Odd that he would want to tie himself to the losing party brand when he is the sole big-ticket Republican who could effectively not make that claim should he wish to.   Not so bewildering, the Clinton's also evoke the Democratic philosophy, but as a proxy for supporting the Democratic candidate.  It is/was clearly the only way they could get their moxy behind Barack without having to lie.  Yes, a proxy/moxy solve. 

It is arguable that the McCain campaign's biggest problem is that McCain has surrounded himself with Bush administration experts, who only know the win-by-party playbook.  So, McCain's message is muddled by a tug-of-war between advocating conservative orthodoxy (where in economic and immigration policy, he personally disagrees with his party, yet has capitulated to party pressure) and McCain's personal pragmatism (a.k.a. the maverick, who does not capitulate to party pressure!). 

After eight years of Americans see party ideology appearing to trump the country's best interest in the Bush administration, Americans are naturally anti-Republican, but moreover, they are anti-party.  It's not difficult to connect the dots: political parties right now are not to be trusted because we just witnessed one party abuse its power (and the Democratic party appear to be toothless instead of ruthless in the congress).  Despite the fact that the Democratic party fairs much better in the polls, it's a risky proposition to identify with either party. 

If you put stock in this analysis, then both candidates would personally lead a less ideological, more pragmatic White House.   But only one -- Barack Obama -- appears to have the leadership chops to not be swayed by his party handlers to muddle is personal brand.  Which means that, despite what history tells us of each candidate, Barack Obama will have a stronger mandate -- and ability -- to be independent than John McCain.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Welcome to the X-Press Secretaries for Obama Support Group

The Powell endorsement might have meant something to some, but I can't imagine a press secretary's endorsement meaning anything to anyone.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Vice Presidential Vices

There is an interesting discussion being generated around Sarah Palin's latest assertion around Vice Presidential duties and responsibilities

What I find particularly interesting is probably not what most people do.  To me, it's not that Sarah Palin doesn't understand the role of Vice President -- it's that she is advocating a broader perspective of the powers and responsibilities outlined ever-so-briefly in the Constitution:

"The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided."

I chose the term "briefly" instead of "concisely" specifically because it is not concise!  There is no place in the Constitution where the duties of "President of the Senate" are specifically outlined other than the process where delegates are counted and a tie-breaking vote is required. 

Here is where the fun starts.  A strict constructionist view of the constitution would arguably be quite conservative:  The role of the Vice President in matters of the Senate are explicitly defined, and therefore no undefined role would be permit-table if we're strictly interpreting the document.  Yet, this conservative, strict constructionist view appears to be that of contemporary Democrats.  Conversely, Republicans (at least those in the Cheney orbit) enjoy the creative process of liberally interpreting the Constitution to assert greater executive power.   Ironically, this liberal interpretation of executive power is being advocated by a Republican Vice Presidential candidate. 

While interesting, it's not unexpected.  For those paying attention, we have seen a few, strong ideological governing philosophies pushed through the Bush/Cheney administration behind the scenes.  One of these streams was that of increasing executive power at the federal level.  Presumably, the conservative movement feels strongly that a legislatively-powered government would end up being too weak, too slow, and too nuanced to be as dynamic as the nation needs its government to be. 

It also should be of no surprise that the McCain campaign handlers that have been coaching Palin are reportedly from the same batch of ideologues that powered the Bush/Cheney White House.  Like George Bush, Sarah Palin is a perfect vessel for behind-the-scenes wonks with strong convictions to fill up with their strategic plans.  For someone who needed to fill in gaps of knowledge with information quickly, Palin was likely to be quite susceptible to strongly willed, smart, and learned voices around governing philosophy. Not much time to check countervailing ideas.

While there is certainly an argument for maintaining the status quo (which has served our nation fairly well in the past), I think re-opening interpretations of the Constitution is not a bad idea in and of itself.  It just should not be done in a vacuum, and it should be debated in a careful, scholarly fashion -- not in a "VP for Dummies" cram session.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Palin 2.0?

I recently heard Sarah Palin speech in a rally in Colorado, and then heard her interviewed (!) by CNN. As much as it might pain The Left to hear this, I think she can be a fairly effective communicator when taken off pit bull duty. I admit that I was surprised that she put together so many sentences in a row during the CNN interview without cue cards, but there you have it. She did. Expectations have been shifted. Though, she seems to have a serious problem with using the word "also" instead of a period.

I've been curious about what kind of communicator Palin would be if she weren't 100% negative (and cynical) all the time. And now that the McCain campaign has realized for the umpteenth time that the character assassination trick doesn't work so well when voters actually have skin in the game, we get to hear Palin 2.0 -- the (slightly) more positive Palin. Granted, this updated version of Palin is somewhat subtle, as she still brings the requisite biting insinuations about Obama's approach and character. But once positive Paline arrives, it is pretty impressive how well her message of "I'm like you and I'll fight for you as if I were you" comes through.

Which brings up an interesting question: Who is the real Palin? Is she naturally a Cynical Sarah that stirs things up and divides people as easily as she gets out of bed in the morning? Or have we've been exposed to a carefully crafted Baraccuda Barbie that the McCain campaign has carefully crafted in order to try to energize the base at all costs?

I just felt this slight shift in her communication style was worth nothing: No matter your opinion of her as a VP candidate, her ability to connect in a positive way to voters should not to be underestimated, even if it has been undervalued to-date. One has to wonder what kind of impression she would have made if not forced to play the role of snarky, populist attack dog on Day 1 through Week 7.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Powell to the People

As I blogged below, the rumors turned out to be true: Colin Powell endorsed the people-powered Barack Obama. What I found the most intriguing was not Powell's endorsement of Obama, but the counter-endorsement/rejection of McCain's decision to pick Governor Palin as his Vice President. Clearly, Powell represents the views of learned and earnest conservatives who see the role of Vice President as too important to take the McCain/Palin ticket seriously.

Powell also offered a view into one of the increasing number of fissures in the Republican party. There are many ways of being conservative, and Obama offers a certain type of conservatism that is attracting folks like Powell, Buckley, Smerconish and others.

When you add the Powell endorsement to the news of a record-setting fund-raising month in September ($150 million), it equals a message and momentum setback for the McCain campaign. Joe the Plumber and William Ayers are going to have a more difficult time breaking through the next few days. It's even possible that the window of opportunity for these two characters has passed.

Starting next week, John McCain is going to struggle to find or create new frames to put the debate back on his terms.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Great Meme Squash, October Surprise, or Both?

It looks as though the Obama campaign has a little surprise in store for the McCain campaign and for the American people: Rumor has it that Colin Powell might endorse Obama this Sunday on his appearance on Meet the Press.

If the rumors are true, this would be an astonishingly savvy and effective campaign maneuver. It hits on several levels:

1. "Joe the Plumber" gets squashed by "Colin the Powell": If our newly minted not-so-plumber plumber were to be the iconic device that re-re-re-energized the McCain campaign, the chances of that actually happening would be drastically reduced by the weight of Powell's endorsement of any candidate, much less a Democrat.

2. Trick-or-Treat: I thought Republicans are the party that's supposed to have the best October Surprises. Could the Obama campaign have had this in their back pocket, and strategically timed it if/when they felt there was a counter-momentum building?

3. It's the Economy and Iraq, Stupid: Just when you thought the economy was the only issue facing our nation, is it possible that Powell will make foreign policy a key component of the decision for voters? And -- against all odds -- will Powell give Obama the instant gravitas he needs to be seen as the superior Commander-in-Chief in addition to economic steward?

Party politics aside, it should not be surprising that Powell would endorse Obama's approach to foreign policy. If one looks at Obama's plan and approach, it fits neatly into America's Best Practices book of Foreign Policy. You know, the approach that made America a widely admired and respected super power. Contrary to Sarah Palin's views on the matter, Obama is no radical in any sense of the word. In terms of foreign policy, Obama's approach is more equivalent to Reagan than even to Clinton. Obama's plan only could seem radical when looked at in contrast to the original Bush doctrine (and, arguably, McCain's proposed doctrine).

It remains to be seen what will happen on Sunday, but if the tea leaves are being read properly, Joe the Plumber just went down the Drain-O.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Debate Analysis Addendum: Check the Plumbing

While I stand by my instant post-debate analysis below, there is an addendum that needs to be shared and discussed: the importance of Joe the Plumber.

Joe Wurzelbacher, the person, is a seemingly hard-working American who owns a small plumbing business in Ohio. Obama ran into him during campaigning and they had a discussion around Obama's tax plan. Joe's view on taxation is fairly representative of the cultural norms in America: he should not be taxed more (i.e., penalized) for being a successful businessman. Obama tried his level best to explain how his policies were fair and for the greater good, but Obama's pitch is better made to a crowd than to an individual. After all, the crowd represents the "greater good" and Joe represents the individual.

Obama seemed to have forgotten Democratic policies appear to favor large groups, and Republican policies appear to favor individuals. The realities don't necessarily equate to the appearances, but appearances are what elections are all about.

Unfortunately for the Obama campaign, Obama handed McCain a campaign lifeline -- Obama helped turn Joe Wuzelbacher, the person, into Joe the Plumber, the symbol, by being led into the "I care about Joe" frame during the debate.

It would be shocking if the McCain campaign didn't campaign almost exclusively on the shoulders of Joe the Plumber for the remainder of the campaign. Why? Because Joe the Plumber gets at the heart of one of many important American self-images: the idea of a successful entrepreneur. Many liberals will not comprehend that Joe Wurzelbacher, the person, is no longer at issue, nor will they understand why the whole 95%/5% tax cut plan Obama has outlined appears to fade from the narrative. They do so at their own peril.

Joe Wurtzelbacher might not even be a licensed plumber, but Joe the Plumber matters. For those who don't believe me, go out and google "Polish Plumber" and learn about how this mythical symbol sunk the European Union constitution in 2005.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Debate #3 Analysis

Your exclusive Between the Columns analysis for the third Presidential debate:

Politically, Debate #3 was quite similar to Debate #1: Obama edged out on style, and it was a draw on substance. And, just like in Debate #1, Obama appealed to women, and McCain appealed to men.

On both points (style and gender), Obama wins, albeit by a slim margin. Yes, the polls will show a larger margin than the real margin (just like Debate #1), but, with an 8 to 14 point lead for Obama, even a slim win is like a good bunt with the bases loaded -- you still run up the score.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bring on the Bradley effect!

Welcome to the Bradley Buffer edition of Obama's campaign:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

McCain Stuck Between a Base and Hard Place

It appears to be increasingly difficult to be a decent, honorable Republican politician. Within the bowels of the Republican base, there is an element of a tragically dis-informed, xenophobic, intolerant, angry torch-bearing mob. A Republican candidate needs these "super-core" voters to come out in order to win elections, but that also means giving these people the red meat they crave. Recently, the McCain/Palin campaign has been happily tossing out the political equivalent of bloody flesh, creating a veritable feeding frenzy. It's no great surprise, then, that when McCain stuck his hand out there with a conciliatory tone, the crowd bit it off with a chorus of boo's.
This made me think about the differences between the extreme Republican base and the reciprocal Democratic base. Over the past eight years, there has been a very angry and frustrated Democratic base. But did this base ever get racist, xenophobic, and culturally intolerant? I don't think so. Sure, the Democratic base has had very little patience for unfettered free markets, perceived social injustice and even a disrespect for the power of leadership and economic optimism. And it's also arguable that the Democratic base is not as effective, organized or loyal to their ideology as the Republican base.

But it seems to me that, at its worst, the Democratic base is not as morally bankrupt as the Republican base.
And when I say morally bankrupt, I am referring to our cultural and civic morals of social equality, fairness, and a respect for our fellow man. These are supposed to be the values that power American supremacy world-wide. Do we not advocate for tolerance and diversity as a national cause? Are we not a more morality-driven nation when we talk about good and evil on the global stage?

So, I ask you: When you listen to the words and sentiments of the people in line for the McCain rally in Pennsylvania in the link above, what do you make of these people? Do you think these are people that should be proportionally represented? Or do you think that the framers of our Constitution actually were counting on people like this not being able to locate the voting booth due to the steam emerging from their nostrils fogging their vision?

It strikes me as an under-reported and under-analyzed phenomenon that the super-core Republican base actually is out of touch with our broader moral fabric of what we stand for as a nation (and, ironically, specifically at odds with the teachings of Christianity -- which the Republican base tends to bear-hug). Again, the super-core Democrats are also clearly culturally out of touch with the mainstream, but are they just as morally out-of-touch?

In any case, this poses a serious problem for a decent soul like John McCain. He at once needs to court this "super-core base" and also somehow remain honorable by rebuking the angry-mob mentality. Tricky turf for a modern Republican candidate to navigate. In my view, Barack Obama has a much easier job: at its worst, the Democratic super-core base is downright ineffective and pathetic; but far from the morally questionable sentiments of their Republican counterparts.

I'm interested in hear views and counter-views around this topic, as I am quite open to modifying my views based on additional information being added to the mix.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

How Could This Be?: The Sequel

"I can't stand to look at him, I don't trust him. I don't like the circle of friends he keeps, I don't like his policies," said an angry political rally attendee. "I'm pissed off by it. I'm beyond mad. How is he climbing up in the polls?"

The great thing about this quote is that it could have been said by a fervent Democrat in 2004, or a fervent Republican in 2008. In this case, it's a Republican at a McCain rally talking about Obama. This is an opportunity for Democrats to have some sympathy for their Republican countrymen and women, for Democrats have a fresh appreciation for this type of political exasperation (and isolation). Conversely, Republicans who are beside themselves as they watch Obama ramp up to victory, they should recognize that this is how their fellow Democratic countrymen and women have felt for most of the last eight years.

Eight years is a long time to feel politically isolated. Given the trajectory of the 2008 race, it sure looks like almost all fervent Americans will now be able to share in the common experience in wondering what the heck those other people are thinking.

[The full WaPo story with the above quote is here:]

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Debate #2 Analysis: Default and Fault

It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings. But I tell you what -- after seeing McCain decidedly not-light-up the country with his leadership, knowledge or stylistic abilities, I can audibly hear her inhaling.

I do not think Obama did great. But just being Obama seems to be good enough to win. In fact, I think Obama might have lost to George W. Bush and to Bill Clinton if he were debating either. But he's not. He's debating the "King of the Republican B-Team" -- the unlikely maverick who only really knows how to become a folksy hero by agitating people in power. Someone who has spent most of his life developing a maverick persona is not going to have the leadership skills people are looking for in an executive office.

As it turns out, Obama's relative disinterest in being a Senator has helped him forge himself as a leader vs. a legislator.

Obama won last night's debate by default. And it was McCain's fault.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Guess Who's Getting Desp-er-ate?

Wow: Palin says Obama friendly with terrorists.

Just smirk as you watch the McCain/Palin campaign try to get out of a hole by deciding to dig faster. This over-the-top approach to character assassination will surely backfire with the 10% undecideds. This is what happens when the "B team" gets desperate. Obama has established a deep lead and it's going to take much more savvy and clever attacks to turn the tides.