The Iowa caucuses are coming much too early this year, but it feels as if we have been waiting forever for them to actually arrive. A barrage of excessive and pointless press coverage has drowned the country for months. Iowa’s caucus for years was seen as the prequel to the actual presidential race which began with the New Hampshire primary. Now it is treated as the climax of a long and winding story, every twist and turn of which needs to be breathlessly covered in exquisite detail.
In reality, Iowa is still a prequel rather than a climax; little of significance happened during all those endless months of stultifying coverage. People followed the ups and downs of obscure campaigns under the delusion that they were following Important News but, as usual, the Iowa caucuses will say more about who won’t be the nominee rather than who will be. Unless you are a political operative or somebody angling to get an appointment in the next Republican administration, you could safely ignore every word written about the GOP contest up until this point without being any less well informed about the important things going on in the country and the world.
In fact, if you invested the time you saved by ignoring the endless Iowa chatter in following actual, significant news about the US and the world, you would be much wiser and better informed than if you wasted all that time and mental energy on the Iowa soap.
An unexpected consequence of blogging regularly has been that I spend more time with legacy media than ever before. The attempt to sift out the handful of stories each day that can help discerning readers trace the development of the world system inescapably involves at least a brief scan of the news catch of the day on display from the great news collecting agencies of our time.
That experience has made me more critical of the legacy media than I was at the beginning. There is too much noise and not nearly enough signal in most of what appears every day. Vital stories are covered poorly if at all; most news organizations appear to spend little time thinking in a disciplined way about what is going on in the world and their coverage reflects this lack of a thoughtful and centered approach to world events.
The US presidential race is a prime example of the poor judgment and poor use of resources that legacy news media coverage displays — at least from the standpoint of the serious student of world events. The coverage begins much too early, contains much too much fluff and spin, and provides the reader with next to no serious insight about where the country is headed.
There are good economic and competitive reasons why the media covers the presidential race in mind numbing detail, but just because they write it doesn’t mean we have to read it.
Many people follow politics the way sports buffs follow sports news, or supermarket shoppers read People magazine and there is nothing wrong with this. Apart from the schadenfreude and love of gossip, it is an innocent human pastime and a perfectly reasonable leisure activity. But it is not the same as a serious interest in events, and people who really want to understand what is happening in the world and help build a better future need to spend less time following horse race chit chat and more time both following the real news and carrying out the historical, economic, cultural and intellectual study programs that will enable them to understand the news in greater depth.
Big budget legacy news providers love long running horse races like American presidential campaigns and fill their pages with race coverage for reasons that have nothing to do with serious news. For one thing, endless political campaigns are the news equivalents of the long running soap operas that dominated decades of daytime TV: essentially mindless story lines that can be produced at a predictable cost and keep the readers coming back.
It is also a way that the big budget papers news magazines and networks can establish themselves as members of an elite press corps. Nobody else has the resources to deploy multiple reporters and/or camera crews to Iowa for the long, pointless marathon. Reporting the pointless twists and turns of the Iowa ordeal and the ordeals still to come, the rise and fall of candidates whose candidacies will be long forgotten before the convention: this has little if anything to do with serious news, but it has a great deal to do with establishing the journalistic pecking order.
Media critics often rail about the bias and the blindness in so much mainstream media coverage, and this is clearly an issue. Watching the media try to turn OWS into a genuinely significant movement of left populism that would counter the Tea Party was one of the funniest spectacles in some time: so much earnestness lavished on such an unpromising corpse.
But at the end the vapidity and the stupidity of the news industry is more worrying than the bias. News is ultimately a matter of stories: constructing a series of continuing narratives that help us identify what matters in the daily and weekly news flow, and using those narratives to organize and present news in ways that allow busy readers to see what is happening and what it means.
The mainstream media is failing by and large at this essential task. It isn’t telling the important stories in a compelling way. The new great game in Asia, the global green meltdown, the crisis of the blue social model, the global contest between Christianity and Islam and a handful of other big narratives aren’t being covered by the mainstream media in a serious and useful way.
That’s good news for Via Meadia: it gives us something to do. We can do the editing and the selection that the mainstream outlets ought to do for themselves, and present our readers over time with distilled and useful news and comment. We can add value to the news flow by an intelligent filtering process. This ought to be the chief goal of any serious news enterprise. That the mainstream media have become so flabby and flaccid in their basic intellectual approach to the ‘what matters’ question is a social problem — but also an opportunity for a small organization to add real value.
That’s what we will be trying to do at Via Meadia and The American Interest Online in 2012. Meanwhile, heartiest New Year’s greetings to all the reporters and editors analyzing the campaigns so industriously vying for that all important fourth place Iowa finish.