Meta-talk and news coverage of the latest government dysfunction

As Senate leaders announced general agreement on a bill to avoid a debt ceiling crisis and reopen government, media stories began to proliferate about winners and losers and the political futures of the players in the drama that has been gripping Washington for the last two weeks. In the academic literature, this type of coverage has many names–meta-talk, strategic reporting, or even horse-race journalism. These stories distract audiences into thinking more about the tactics and strategies involved in the legislative process, rather than fostering an understanding of the policy itself.

Before the ink was dry on the bills, stories about John Boehner, Ted Cruz, President Obama, and many other key figures and their future as leaders dominated the airwaves, pages, and blogosphere. Many media outlets reported, for example, a Pew Center poll about how Senator Ted Cruz is perceived by Democrats and Republicans and speculating on his chances as a 2016 presidential candidate. The Christian Science Monitor and many other media outlets had stories about John Boehner’s political future as speaker as the temporary resolution to the crises appeared.  Fox News reported that President Obama would use his victory in the shutdown and debt crises to leverage pressure on Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. Most outlets, including long discussions on CNN and MSNBC centered on the future of the Republican Party after the immediate crises, often talking about the “fracturing” of the party.

Stories like these dominate media coverage, particularly on television and on-line. Communication researchers point to several causes for this type of coverage. One issue is economics. Cost cutting in traditional media outlets has forced broadcast and cable news outlets to adopt more interview-style coverage in which pundits and party representatives are invited on to talk about the meaning of political events, like the government shutdown or the debt crisis. Inevitably these talking heads move from discussions of policy to discussions of political strategy and tactics.

Another reason for this type coverage is that it reinforces the fictitious media goal of “objectivity.” If the idea is that experts and party representatives talk about winners and losers, then both sides are being represented and media outlets have met the minimum bar of objectivity.

The most significant reason for this type of coverage is that it reinforces the fundamental idea that politics is a contest. The narrative of conflict is sexy for most media outlets. CNN even reconstituted its long-running evening program, Crossfire, to perpetuate this narrative. Over the last two weeks, this show has obsessively focused on the players in the shutdown and debt crises and who is winning and who is losing at any given time.

Recent polls suggest that Americans are less enamored with political winners and losers than the media coverage would indicate. On lists of trusted institutions in American life, media outlets–traditional and new–fall significantly below the Mendoza Line in terms of trustworthiness. It is true that Congress consistently rates lower than media outlets in terms of trustworthiness, but this fixation on meta-talk, instead of hard news reporting does little to change the cynicism most Americans feel about government and those who cover it.

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