Shallow, Shallower, Shallowest

by Matthew Freeman

November 09, 2015

Fostering informed debate about sound regulatory policy to protect health, safety, and the environment is one of the Center for Progressive Reform’s fundamental objectives. Presidential candidates, on the other hand, like to focus on the issues that get them elected, not necessarily the issues that are important.

Unfortunately, the media is increasingly complicit in avoiding genuine issue discussions. Weekend before last, GOP candidate Carly Fiorina appeared on ABC’s Sunday public affairs talk show, “This Week,” and in response to an essentially political question about Paul Ryan from the usually fine ABC journalist Martha Raddatz, Fiorina veered into regulatory policy. Here’s ABC’s transcript:

RADDATZ:  I want to start off with Paul Ryan. He was a congressional staffer, elected to the House at age 28. Is he too much of a Washington insider to change so-called business as usual in Washington?

CARLY FIORINA (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, we'll see. But I think everything you heard Paul Ryan say is that he intends to lead the Republican caucus to providing solutions. And I think that's what people want. You know, when I'm out here on the campaign trail, people want to see results. Leadership is about producing results. It's not about talking, it's about producing results.

And so one of the things that I would encourage Congress to do is pass the zero-based budgeting bill that has been languishing in Congress for too long, pass the REINS Act, which gives Congress the authority, the accountability, to oversee every new regulation that has an impact of greater than $100 million, and pass a border security bill so that we can finally secure our border.

Those are things that would be producing results. The American people would see it. And I think it would advance the ball tremendously.

RADDATZ: Let's talk about the CNBC debates…. 

Without prompting, Fiorina embraced the REINS Act, a perfectly ridiculous piece of anti-regulatory legislation intended to undercut implementation and enforcement of all manner of environmental, health and safety laws, by blocking regulations from going into effect unless they have been approved by a majority vote of both houses of Congress soon after promulgation. CPR’s Sidney Shapiro, Noah Sachs, and James Goodwin have explained why the bill would effectively paralyze the vital work of writing regulations to implement duly enacted laws. Fiorina’s embrace of it warrants a follow-up from Raddatz — perhaps a slightly less loaded version of, “Why do you think making it impossible for EPA to protect the environment or OSHA to make workplaces safe would be a good idea?” But Raddatz was having none of this policy business, when there was a perfectly good political fight to talk about.

That typifies the media’s coverage of campaigns these days. The media’s focus on the horse race at the expense of substance is a longstanding problem with its campaign coverage. But something about this campaign feels even shallower still. In the not too distant past, the media made an effort to play the very important role of holding candidates’ feet to the fire when they said ill-informed things or took risible positions. And if any television program is designed for feet-to-fire holding, you’d think it would be a Sunday morning network public affairs show like “This Week.”

But the media spent most of early November picking over the bones of CNBC’s GOP debate, focused not on the issues the candidates discussed, but on whether the poor dears were unkindly treated by the moderators. In all candor, I find myself in rare agreement with Ted Cruz, who fairly chastised the CNBC panelists for asking a number of questions designed to incite one candidate to attack another, or to explain why their campaigns should continue despite low poll numbers.

But Cruz and his colleagues misdiagnose the problem when they say that it’s a function of media bias against the GOP. The shallowness of some of the debate questions is representative of a larger disinterest by the media in making sure campaigns inform voters about the candidates’ views on the issues. CNBC stirred the pot because it wanted viral moments to come from the debate, not because it had it in for any of the candidates. They’re interested in eyeballs and clicks, and the ad revenue they generate, not in information. That’s also why the media is all too happy to focus on the post-debate whining instead of say, Marco Rubio’s distortion during the debate of Hillary Clinton’s recent testimony before Congress.

That’s a huge loss. If the only information voters get is about the tit-for-tat of the campaign or about the horse race, that’s all they’ll have available to make their voting decisions. If the media instead signaled to voters that issues mattered by actually covering them, voters would certainly follow suit. It might cost them a ratings point or two, and they might not get as many clicks, but we’d all be better served.

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Also from Matthew Freeman

Media relations consultant Matthew Freeman helps coordinate CPR's media outreach efforts and manage its online communications. His media relations experience in Washington spans more than 30 years, and his client list includes a range of organizations active on the environment, education, civil rights and liberties, health care, progressive organizing in the interfaith community, and more.

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