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Don’t Let Election Coverage Distract You from the Real News


Penn and Teller argue that one of the secrets of great magicians is misdirection. The magician can not afford to have the audience see him switch out the normal three of spades for a prepared three of spades. So, he has his beautiful assistant walk on stage, or he waves a red handkerchief or he throws a toy rabbit across the stage. The audience looks at the beautiful assistant, or the red handkerchief or the toy rabbit. With no one paying attention, he makes his card swap.

Misdirection is a technique of deliberate deceit. In real life, the distractions that keep us from following what is going on are not necessarily part of anyone’s deliberate plan to deceive or mislead. However, the effect is just the same. Our attention wanders. We miss the real story.


Which brings us to one of the biggest distractors in contemporary journalism: coverage of the American presidential election. The cycle starts almost two years before the election, picks up in June the year before the election when the first debates start, and continues with greater and greater intensity up to Election Night.


There are stories of who is in. There are stories of who is out. There are stories of fund raising. There are stories with the results of straw polls. There are stories of real polls. There are stories of great one-liners and zingers delivered by particular candidates. There are stories about gaffes in front of the mike by particular candidates. There are stories of old mis-steps, bad votes and bad quotes that candidates committed in their early years. And there are endless stories about character, character and character. Does Tony Andrade or Jennifer Blanton or Sheila James have what it takes to beat the person they are supposed to beat? (These are made-up names here. Substitute whatever names you like.)


All of these stories run during news time. And what gets crowded out so that your TV station can air all of these election stories?



The wars of the world do not stop because America is having an election.


The social problems of the U.S. do not go away because America is having an election.


The social conflicts of the rest of the world do not get put on ice because America is having an election.


So, all of these social processes continue while the Americans are paying minimal attention.


This suits your primary news channels fine. It is expensive to send out reporters to get stories on world events. It is expensive to have investigative staff uncover the back stories of what is going on in Congress. It is expensive to follow what is going on in the various administrative agencies of the federal government, watching for policy changes that could be significant.


It is cheap to have three talking heads come to the studio and talk about what they think about the latest comments made by Candidate X or the “real” meaning of the poll that was taken last week.


And it doesn’t even matter if the election reportage is at all accurate. Remember, that nearly every news channel, liberal, conservative and middle-of-the-road, blew the coverage of the 2016 election. They were all reporting Hillary Clinton as having an 85% chance of winning. They had armies of talking heads talking about everything Hillary Clinton was doing right and Donald Trump was doing wrong.


They were all reporting poll numbers that vastly underestimated the support for Donald Trump. Distrustful skeptical people don’t respond when people they don’t know call them on the telephone and ask to know their political opinions. Trump voters are particularly likely to be distrustful and skeptical, and are thus highly like not to respond to political polls. Just because conservatives don’t answer the questions of telephone pollsters does not mean they do not intend to come out and vote. Most of the political polls that are reported by the news media suffer from what is known in surveys as selection bias. If conservative people are more likely to choose not to participate in the survey, the survey results will be more liberal than the actual opinions of the American electorate. Yet, even today, the news media publish and report on and analyze “the latest polls” because viewers like to see polls. The network promises you these polls are absolutely accurate.


While everyone is paying attention to the latest poll that just came out this morning, no one is paying attention to the actual pots in the world that are boiling.


So, what should you do if you want actual news?


Don’t count on MSNBC or Fox News or CNN to bail you out here. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal will be somewhat better, but not entirely.


I get a lot of my news from foreign sources. For a conservative British outlet, like the Economist, or a liberal British outlet, like the Guardian, the American presidential election is just one story among many stories. They make a point to keep an eye on both other issues in the United States and on other issues in the world as a whole.


What should you do if you want more detailed American coverage than a foreign news outlet would provide? The business press will continue to pay attention to economic news, whether there is an election or not. They also frequently cover important political issues, the Wall Street Journal from a more conservative perspective, Business Week from a centrist pro-business perspective that can turn either left or right.


That not enough for you? Take the issues you care about and follow the websites that pay undivided attention to those issues. Websites on ecological issues, racial justice issues, health care provision, religious freedom or whatever else matters to you are available from a wide variety of political perspectives.  


Don’t let the beautiful assistant or the red handkerchief distract you. Keep your eyes on the magician’s hands. What you see will reveal the true nature of your world.

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