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What the election tells us about the press

0 Robert Levine

William Goldman, a remarkably prolific screen writer who wrote the screenplays for, among other movies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and The Princess Bride (which was based on a novel he wrote), began his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade with a three-word opening sentence. He wrote:  “Nobody knows anything” - which is almost as good an opening sentence as “Call me Ishmael,” or, for that matter, G-G-G-Eb (fermata).

Unfortunately, he was right about more than Hollywood. Living in a swing state, the past few weeks on television has been pretty much non-stop campaign commercials. That’s bothered me less than the total dominance of the news by what passes as political reporting these days, most of which is simply not worth the mental energy to read, watch, or listen to.

So what’s the problem with it? It’s quite simple, and quite revealing - the media covers the race and ignores the fundamentals, both the policy fundamentals and the large body of political science that tells anyone who can read that the horse race is not really what determines the winner in most presidential elections..

Any why does the media ignore the fundamentals? Here’s the lesson for us - the media is mostly interested in conflict. Politics - as opposed to policy - is thus perfectly suited for the media, as politics - as opposed to policy - is entirely about conflict. What that conflict is actually about is far less interesting to the media, so they either ignore it or “cover” it by simply reporting what each side says about policy differences. Unfortunately, politicians long ago figured out that they could say whatever they wanted about policy without the media calling them out on inaccuracies, so the public is no better informed by the media than they would have been by smoke signals about what is really at stake in a given dispute or election.

The coverage of what’s happening in the orchestra field follows that model to a “T.” First of all, the media focuses on the conflicts, rather than what’s really happening in the field - which, of course, is far more complex than simply a series of labor disputes. But labor disputes are, like politics, what the media knows how to cover.

Secondly, when covering the disputes, the media simply reports the spin that management and musicians put on the other’s positions, rather than doing any real work trying to figure out whatever truth might underlay the dispute. It’s almost as if the media, at the end of the day, assumes there’s not really an underlying truth at all, and certainly not one that requires them to do any independent investigation or analysis, or even careful questioning of both sides.

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