Who’s more elitist?

By Jamison Foser
Media Matters

Coverage of candidates’ ability to relate to voters ignores their policy positions

With Barack Obama and John McCain each trying portray the other as an out-of-touch, wealthy elitist, there’s one thing missing from media coverage of the skirmish: an assessment of what the two candidates’ policy positions say about how well they understand and care about the needs of average Americans.

The latest imbroglio was sparked by John McCain’s admission on Wednesday that he does not know how many houses he owns. That statement came on the heels of McCain’s initial refusal last weekend to define “rich,” after which he indicated a yearly salary of $5 million is the threshold for being rich, a comment he then suggested was a joke. But McCain never did define the term, even though he has in the past based his opposition to tax cuts he now supports on the fact that they disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

The Obama campaign quickly responded with an ad pointing out that McCain didn’t know how many homes he owns, and answering the question for the Arizona senator: seven homes worth a total of $13 million, according to the Obama campaign.

McCain’s camp responded angrily, with spokesperson Brian Rogers defending McCain: “This is a guy who lived in one house for five and a half years — in prison” and saying Obama’s house is “a frickin’ mansion.” Apparently forgetting that just a few days earlier, their candidate suggested that you aren’t rich unless you make $5 million a year, McCain’s campaign also mocked Obama for making $4 million last year.

Naturally, the news media rushed to cover the fight. Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post explained the importance:

In politics, there is nothing worse than appearing out of touch.

From time immemorial, a candidate who is effectively portrayed as forgetting about the “little” people, of having “gone Washington,” of living higher on the hog than voters, loses.

Class remains a powerful motivator for many voters in the country. Politicians are forever trying to cast their candidacies as closely rooted in the communities from which they sprung — a purposeful attempt to ensure that voters know that the candidate “understands the problems of people like you.” Put simply: The worst thing you can call a politician is an elitist.

But in more than 1,000 words about the importance of candidates’ convincing voters they are not “out of touch” and understand the problems of typical Americans, Cillizza made no mention of the candidates’ policy positions. Didn’t even hint that such things might indicate, in a more concrete way than the shoes they wear or the salad greens they favor, whether the candidates truly understand the problems of the people they would serve — and whether they would do anything to ease those problems. Cillizza’s focus was entirely on the perception and the politics of the dispute — without so much as an acknowledgment that the candidates’ policies might more meaningfully indicate whether one (or both) of them is “out of touch.”

And Cillizza’s approach carried the day. NBC’s Nightly News, the CBS Evening News, ABC’s World News, The New York Times, and The Washington Post — among others — ignored the candidates’ policy positions in their reports on the flap. Instead, they focused on the campaign attacks — and on attempting to assess which would be more effective. But assessments like these have absolutely no merit, no value. They serve no purpose; they do not educate viewers and readers about anything that matters. As Congressional Quarterly senior editor Chris Lehmann explained this week:

Market share dictates the witless coverage, which is largely for the media’s own amusement. You see that all the time on the Sunday political chat shows, which are always about the polls and who is performing better in strategic terms. The only constituency that cares about that is the media. I have family around the country and we always talk politics, and no one ever asks me, “How did Obama perform on his European tour?” It’s an asinine question.

Rather than attempting to guess how voters will score the exchange so they can tell the voters how they’ll react (an exercise that is pointless at best), reporters should be giving them additional information that will help them meaningfully assess the candidates.

When John Edwards was running for president, and the media were obsessing about his wealth, they linked his fortune to his policy positions. Surely John McCain — who can’t remember how many houses he owns, “jokes” that you aren’t rich unless you make $5 million a year, and supports tax policies that would save him and his wife, Cindy, nearly $400,000 a year — should be held to the same standard?

Of course, John McCain is rarely held to the same standard the media apply to Democrats. But if basic fairness doesn’t convince reporters to examine how the candidates’ policy proposals relate to their wealth — and to the voters they are trying to woo — maybe this will: John McCain wants the media to link the candidates’ wealth with their proposals.

McCain’s campaign released a statement yesterday linking Obama’s 2007 salary with his “plans to raise taxes.” (Obama would, in fact, cut taxes on the vast majority of Americans, which didn’t stop several journalists from reporting McCain’s false attack as though it were true.) If media darling John McCain wants the media to consider the candidates’ wealth in concert with their policy proposals … well, few reporters have a track record of resisting McCain’s desires. Why should they start now?

It’s easy to get caught up in trying to count John McCain’s houses or listing Barack Obama’s preferred salad greens or trying to figure out whether there’s a Whole Foods in Iowa or how much John and Cindy McCain spend on household staff. But reporters covering these who-is-the-real-elitist battles should keep in mind that for most voters, the candidates’ bank accounts are less important than their own. The candidates’ policy positions — their tax plans, their proposals for dealing with the mortgage crisis, their health care plans, among others — should be part of any news report purporting to assess the skirmish over which candidate is more in touch with the needs of the typical American.

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