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Jewish World Review June 29, 2000 / 26 Sivan, 5760

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly
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Consumer Reports

A Press Obsession With the Death Penalty -- A NEWCOMER to this country reading the mainstream press and watching television in this election year, would easily discern one of the issues of greatest concern to voters: George W. Bush's position on the death penalty. A Nexis search Monday for stories mentioning Bush at least three times and the words "death penalty" or "executions" or "capital punishment" at least three times pulled up 505 hits--news articles, TV transcripts, press releases, etc.--within the previous week alone. Narrowing the search to The Post, the New York Times and "major newspapers" turned up 12 hits in the Times over the previous seven days, four in the Post and 139 in the major newspapers. Over the previous month, the total was 25 items in the Times alone, 16 in the Post and 303 in the major newspapers.

The newcomer would learn all sorts of things about Bush and the death penalty. He would learn that Texas led the country in executions. He would learn that DNA testing had cleared a number of people convicted of death penalty crimes, and that a study of death penalty sentences found that more than two-thirds that are appealed are eventually overturned because of errors in the ways in which the cases were investigated or tried. He would learn that such findings as these had moved the governor of Illinois to suspend the death penalty in his state--but that Gov. Bush had stubbornly refused to back off of his support for capital punishment.

What the newcomer would not learn is that, in fact, the question of Bush's support for the death penalty--or for that matter, the question of the death penalty itself--was not of the slightest interest to the great majority of voters. Support for the death penalty is consistent and relatively stable; although it has declined somewhat during recent months of heavy anti-death penalty news coverage, it still is above 60 percent in every public opinion poll. What is more, the death penalty is simply not of voting concern to almost everybody. A look through 16 recent national polls questioning adults as to the most important issues facing the nation finds the death penalty unmentioned. The voters know that the president has almost nothing to do with capital punishment, and that, in this election anyway, there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the two major candidates on the issue.

All of this illustrates a curious thing that has happened to presidential elections--the rise of the media as a major force, perhaps the major force, in defining what are and what are not issues. With the passing of party bosses and a long run of public complacency, the press has been able to fill a vacuum, and has established itself in presidential years as not only the Great Mentioner but the Great Decider. In their secret hearts, I think, most journalists feel this is not a bad thing at all. For the good of the nation, someone has to decide, and who better than the disinterested guardians of a free society--us?

But there are several problems here. One is that, as surveys show, the media are far more homogenous than the general population in their views, and these views are far more liberal. Another is that the media's role in choosing and framing issues conflicts with their role in objectively informing the public. The invention of the Bush death penalty issue is typical of the media's habit of creating issues that skew coverage to (a) advance liberal causes and/or (b) favor the Democrat and disfavor the Republican .

Journalists like to think that they think (and write) without bias. But everyone else knows that this is absurd. What journalists choose and how journalists frame inescapably arises out of what journalists believe. And, as a group, journalists believe in liberalism and in electing Democrats. Consider two election-year bows to bigotry, George Bush's visit to Bob Jones University and Al Gore's visit with Al Sharpton. The first was deemed a big issue, with 884 Nexis hits to date, and the tone of coverage overwhelmingly critical of Bush. The second was deemed much less an issue--only 323 hits and relatively little criticism. Yet pandering to Sharpton would strike most people, I think, as at least as bad as pandering to Bob Jones. Who decided one mattered a lot and the other not so much? Just we few, our little objective unbiased selves, bringing you the issues that are fit to print.

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


06/21/00:Gore and the Goodies
06/15/00: Network Snooze
06/01/00: Sunshine on My Shoulders
05/24/00: Last Chance for a Hardened Prevaricator
05/17/00: Cuomo's Thought Police
05/10/00: Hammering DeLay
05/04/00: Some Closing Thoughts
04/28/00: Endangering Elian
04/19/00: Imitation Activism
04/12/00: Why they hate Bubba
04/05/00: Census and nonesense
03/29/00: The Stiffs and Their Statuettes
03/15/00: Anarchy in Kosovo
03/08/00: Reform joke
03/01/00:The Pinhead Factor
03/01/00: The Christian Right: Past Its Prime . . .
02/24/00: McCain's Majority
02/16/00: Sharpton's Supplicants
02/09/00: The GOP Pilgrims' Sad Tale
02/02/00: Fodder For the GOP
01/26/00: Million-Dollar Mediocrity
01/19/00: Campaign Reform: Let's Pretend
01/12/00: Never Again? Oh, Never Mind
01/05/00: Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In
12/22/99: Gore's TV Gambit
12/15/99: Campaigns Do Clarify
12/08/99: Kosovo's Killers
12/01/99: Not Ready for Prime Time?
11/24/99: The Company He Keeps
11/17/99: Republican Illusion
11/10/99: The Know-Nothing Media
11/03/99: Necessary Partisanship
10/27/99: Buchanan's Gift to George W. Bush
10/21/99: Who are the real friends of the poor?
10/14/99: Gore's 'courage'!?
10/08/99: Republican Stunts
09/23/99: Buchanan's folly
09/16/99: Beatty and Buchanan: That's Entertainment!
09/09/99: Puerto Rico Surprise (Cont'd)
09/02/99: Puerto Rico Surprise
08/12/99:The Age of No Class
08/05/99: Assessing Welfare Reform
07/29/99: On the Wrong Side
07/21/99: Mass Sentimentality
07/15/99: Blame Hillary
07/08/99: Guide to the Arts: For Your Summer Reading . . .
06/30/99: A Perfectly Clintonian Doctrine
06/25/99:Smorgasbord by the Sea
06/16/99: A National Calamity
06/09/99: Stumbling Forward
06/02/99: Commencement '90s-Style
05/26/99: Will we ever learn? Clintochio is a lying ...
05/19/99: Comforting Milosevic
05/13/99: Short-Order Strategists
05/06/99: Four Revolting Spectacles

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