I'm sick of people elevating the media into the central force in American politics.
The Note, an idiotic arbiter of media conventional wisdom if there ever was one, suggests today that the impending departure of Associated Press chief political writer "will change the contours of the 2006 and 2008 elections in ways that can now be only dimly understood." No.
Jamison Foser, a columnist at Media Matters, recently wrote a column with a similar perspective, stating that "The defining issue of our time is the media.... The dominant political force of our time is the media." Again, no and no.
The media matters a great deal in shaping the public's perceptions about politics, as we argued at Spinsanity and in All the President's Spin. But a new AP political writer will not shape the 2006 and 2008 elections, nor is the media the "dominant political force of our time." The press does not have that sort of effect on macropolitical outcomes. In fact, we rarely observe significant shifts in public opinion in a political environment in which conflicting messages are in circulation -- it is hard for politicians or the media to move the numbers in this context. (See John Zaller's The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion or Page and Shapiro's The Rational Public for more.)
A better way to understand the media is as a reflection of the larger society in which it exists. Journalists produce content that is heavily shaped by commercial incentives and the political balance of power. Because activists and journalists follow the output of the media on a daily basis, and because the media's output tracks the prevailing forces in society, it often seems like the media is the main causal force. But that is silliness. (If you want to understand the ebb and flow of American politics from a macro perspective, read The Macro Polity.)
Does this mean the press can't or shouldn't do better? Absolutely not. The press has a crucial responsibility in a democratic society. But we should not overestimate its influence. If only reporters knew some political science...
Update 5/31 7:23 PM: Wonkette mocks The Note for the statement I quoted above.
Dear ABC News Political Unit,
Have you guys been outside lately? Not necessarily today, but maybe at any point since you became a member of a “political unit?” And again, not even necessarily that far outside, not like out to the “heartland” or “outside the beltway” or something, just anywhere outside the ABC News offices? It doesn’t count if you went there with the rest of the ABC Political Unit, by the way.
Anyway, good luck, Ron. Your new job will surely alter the very fabric of time and space, but you gotta do what you gotta do.