Thursday, January 28, 2010
By Eileen McNamara
Martha Coakley was not the only loser in the special election for the US Senate seat left vacant by the death of Edward M. Kennedy. The media got mauled, too.
From The Boston Globe poll putting Coakley 15 points ahead of Scott Brown days before he hammered her to the press corps that wrote off his candidacy from the outset, too many journalists made clear that reliance on political insiders and conventional wisdom is their chief reporting tool.
Yes, it is true Massachusetts has not elected a Republican to the US Senate since Ed Brooke in 1972. No, it is not true that the possibility was unfathomable, despite what the “experts” repeatedly told reporters from the day Brown announced his candidacy. Massachusetts voted for Ronald Reagan and has elected three Republican governors since 1990, testament to the independence of voters in the allegedly “bluest” state in the nation where half of the electorate is unaffiliated with a political party.
It is also simply nonsense that an anger-fueled electoral upset is unprecedented in Massachusetts. Democratic voters sent Michael Dukakis a similar message in 1978 when they felt ignored by a governor they perceived as patronizing and aloof. That message was named Ed King.
What was different this time is that contempt for entrenched media is now equal to contempt for entrenched politicians. Voters who repudiated the sense of entitlement Democrats displayed toward “Ted Kennedy’s seat” also rejected reporters (and the pollsters and professors and pundits they quoted) who presumed to tell them how they were likely to vote.
Readers are rejecting traditional journalism because they don’t see their interests and concerns reflected in newspapers that consider citizens an ancillary part of the political process. Missing in most of the campaign coverage were the voices of voters. Instead, those voters read about personality and polls, about the centerfold and the truck. She’s stiff; he’s a hunk. She’s arrogant; he’s so nice. She’s ahead; no, wait, he’s ahead. Maybe it’s a dead heat. Isn’t this the kind of drivel that, after every election, political reporters vow never to engage in again?
As long as center stage in political coverage belongs to the strategists, the pollsters and the pundits, those readers won’t be coming back.
Had reporters been listening, surely they would have heard the rumble of Scott Brown’s truck bearing down on conventional wisdom That they were deaf to it is all the more remarkable because reporters didn’t have to leave their newsrooms to learn that they had lost touch with their readers; in online discussions and in post after post in the comment sections of The Globe and The Herald, Democrats expressed either their tepid support for Coakley or their conviction that Brown is not, in fact, “an empty suit.”
Mainstream journalists are still adapting to their new relationship with readers, the people “formerly known as the audience” in Dan Gillmor’s phrase. Well into an age of interactive media, we are still covering politics as though readers were passive consumers of the news. They are not. The decline in readership is accompanied by a comparable loss of political influence. The readers who remain are not in the market for oracles. Their demand for less lecturing and more listening applies to journalists as well as to politicians.
Martha Coakley will regret scoffing at the notion that she should have spent the six-week campaign shivering on street corners, listening to voters. She paid the price for not being out on the streets of Massachusetts, taking the pulse of those she claimed to serve. So will the media.
(Eileen McNamara, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at The Boston Globe, is a professor of the practice of journalism at Brandeis University.)