Columns

The good, bad and ugly coverage of US election campaign

Wednesday, October 31, 2012    

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FOR those in Jamaica and other Caribbean countries who previously believed that there was nothing at stake for us in the American elections, the campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney now appears riveting. As both candidates head for the finish line, it seems that the whole world is paying attention. Nowhere is this more evident than in global conversations on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and on other social media sources that may be rendering the delayed conclusions of post-event by media pundits to be irrelevant.

There are several aspects of this campaign that are fascinating. One is certainly the personality of each candidate, but another is the quality of the media coverage and the unpredictable response of potential voters as reflected in opinion polls.

Like so many Jamaicans and people of African descent, I am biased in favour of Obama. In fact, polling in other countries suggest that the ordinary people in those countries also favour President Obama as the more personable candidate with a believable concern for the ordinary American. So, if some of the media stories and the polls are to be believed, how is it that a significant number of poor Americans would seriously be considering voting for Mitt Romney who has, among other things, threatened to cut social services? This is the candidate who has described them as "victims" and said that they were among the 47 per cent that he doesn't worry about. The explanation advanced by some analysts is that for many in this category it is the economy. But based on the promises and plans that the Romney campaign has presented so far, there is no real foundation for believing that he will be a saviour to the middle class and the poor, and most certainly, not the women.

But then, as brilliant a strategist as he appeared to be in his first campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama has revealed some personal flaws that caused the race to be a much more closely contested one than it had appeared midway. Some of this was seen in the first debate when he was all but wiped out, thereby ceding the momentum to his opponent.

To his credit, Obama came storming back in rounds two and three. Interestingly, if you follow sections of the media it seems that the two succeeding rounds carry much fewer points with the electorate. That aside, based on the discussions on talk shows and conversations on social media networks, the president has rebounded strongly. Non-partisan sources are universal in their conclusions that he was a clear winner in the final debate. The polls now indicate that he is ahead nationally, but the margin of error suggests that the race could still result in a dead heat.

Another fascinating aspect of this race is the influence of the media coverage on the discussion agenda in many countries. Also, as I saw first-hand while on a short visit to the US recently, the campaign there has resulted in unprecedented levels of media saturation. Everywhere one turned there was something about the US presidential elections. Here in Jamaica, although a good distance from the shores of that country, the coverage is similarly dominant. I do look forward to the post-election analysis grounded in research on the impact that the media had on public opinion and voting behaviour.

Both sides are said to have spent more than US$100 million on advertisements alone. On the downside, the volume of negative advertisements is unprecedented. So much so that this has resulted in some discomfort in both camps and may yet leave irreparable scars in race and class relations. Those who believe that negative political advertising is what Jamaica majors in should pay attention to the US cable television and see that we are young to this business, as in that country the media have this down pat.

At the beginning of the campaign, Democrats did not give Romney much chance. This was the case even here in Jamaica, where support for Obama is strong. However, that has changed in the last six or so weeks of the campaign, and the Republican has proved to be a formidable opponent undoubtedly bolstered by a war chest of unprecedented riches. Additionally, as the stakes get higher, many are returning to the view that race remains a major factor which may well cost Obama the votes that he needs to take him beyond reach. Before superstorm Sandy went ashore the US this week, he did appear to be regaining momentum and held a small but firm lead. However, no one can know for sure the impact of the storm on voter turnout. It may yet hold blessings and losses for both sides. As we here in Jamaica know all too well, storms have a way of doing that to a campaign. The effects almost never favour the incumbent.

We will all also have to wait until the contest is over to get a scientific reading of how the media impacted the results. In the US media coverage, the balance principle in journalism appears not to be a factor. Little or no attempt is made to conceal bias although some practitioners do attempt to base their positions on research. For others, like the Fox cable news analysts, there is no pretence, they are unerring in their support of the Republican ticket. The pro-Democrat MSNBC channel, in my albeit biased view, is equally fervent but are not as rigid in their positions. It is very clear that our media counterparts in the "land of the free and home of the brave" do not share our views on values of neutrality and balance in political reporting in general and election coverage in particular.

The positions of both these cable networks clearly show that in the US - unlike the UK media tradition which we in Jamaica adhere to - the major networks openly support the candidate of their choice with no fear of the consequences. In that context, it is the norm for them, especially newspapers, to endorse a candidate. Virtually all the major newspapers have done so over the years along party lines. Hence, The New York Times (NYT), perceived as ideologically left of centre, is generally pro-Obama, whereas the right-of-centre Fox is predictably pro-Romney.

While there have been past election campaigns in Jamaica where one or the other media house has been branded pro-PNP or JLP, as in the case of the 1980 election campaign (when The Gleaner was regarded as something akin to the "anti-Christ" by the comrades, and the state-controlled Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation, a PNP propaganda machine), this, to a large extent, is not the norm. The 1980 campaign was definitely a departure from tradition. Ironically, in the 2011 election campaign many Labourites claimed that The Gleaner was pro-Comrade. The resulting hostility that this type of view prompted contributed to the intimidation of some practitioners by misguided party supporters. Despite the obvious hostile media climate in the present US election campaign, I have yet to hear of practitioners being subjected to actual physical harm.

Generally, though, while there are columnists and commentators who do not appear bashful about showing their support for one or the other party, Jamaica's media practitioners have made some effort to appear neutral. Except in the case of party papers, no media entity has ever openly endorsed a political candidate in Jamaica, again with 1980 being the possible exception. Such action would invariably lead to negative economic consequences. In the interim, the coverage of the US elections provides us with a front seat view of the good, bad and ugly sides of media campaigning that may make us see ourselves in a less critical light in moving forward.

antoye@gmail.com

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