The will to do better political journalism

Populist philosopher Will Rogers once said, “I’m not a member of any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.”  This political season, though, it seems to be Republicans, not Democrats, feeding on their political young. Will’s likely turning in his grave in astonishment.

Will also said, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.”  But would Will think that journalists this political season are being all that accurate in their truth-telling?  Amid all the political horserace hoopla, are Americans instead being fed a media diet laced with indigestible half-truths?

After the recent zero-delegates races in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, the Associated Press reported that Rick Santorum had re-emerged “as the conservative candidate in the race.” Read here

Really?  Didn’t Mitt Romney still have a delegates’ lead of more than two-to-one over Santorum – the same he’d had before the three meaningless contests?  Yes, but the AP buried that fact deep in the bowels of its story.

By covering these contests as if they were the real thing, instead of unrepresentative opportunities for a small handful of party zealots to stand up and be disproportionately counted, the public is being misled. It’s little surprise that fewer registered voters seem to be making sense of things and thus are choosing to not participate.

And it’s enough to make a person wonder whether the dissatisfaction of the GOP faithful is not only with Romney, but also with the media.

For example, readers were told by any number of media sources that voter turnout this year has been mixed at best, and lower than usual at worst.  But one is only left to wonder why the Washington Post would bother to report voting figures this year and compare them to those of the past, but not let readers know basic percentages.

Yes, it’s nice to know that in Colorado, about 65,000 voters turned out for the GOP caucuses, down from about 70,000 in 2008, and that in Minnesota, roughly 48,000 voters went to the state’s recent caucus, as opposed to about 62,000 four years ago. But what’s the context?  Did 3 percent of registered voters indeed show up?  Or 6 percent?  And if turnout was that low, what does this indicate?

True, the Post reported campaign pollster Joel Benenson said the low caucus turnout represented part of a broader lack of enthusiasm among Republicans.  But without some basic statistical information, readers don’t know how low “low” really is.

Benenson’s contention likely is correct that GOP voters “are dissatisfied with their candidates,” especially Romney.  It’s also likely correct that the candidates are not the only ones making it difficult for the members of the public to handicap this horse-race journalism season.

Will Rogers also said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.”  One can’t help wondering whether or not he’d likely say the same thing about political journalism in 2012.