Politics and Journalism

Tuesday, November 13th, 2007

This article by Peter Wallsten from the Los Angeles Times and printed in The Hartford Courant is typical of what I would call “political or horse-race reporting.” It’s also reflective of news programming that concentrates of political strategy and campaign instruction, which may be a new idiom of the art.

Here are some features that describe the idiom:

1. Content is typically inconsistent with the headline
2. Content reflects party activity as the subject of the report
3. Quotes are reported as if they “were” the news

Let’s look at this a little more closely. The headline reads: “Democrats Get Tougher On Illegal Immigrants.” The first paragraph reads:

Top Democratic elected officials and strategists are engaged in an internal debate over toughening the party’s image on illegal immigration, with some worried that Democrats’ relatively welcoming stance makes them vulnerable to GOP attacks in the 2008 election.

While the headline suggests actual changes in policy positions by the Democrats, the first paragraph focuses on “the party’s image.” The debate is not about actual policy, but about a “toughening of the party’s image on illegal immigration” or what Wallsten refers to as “calibration.” The problem for this shift in “image-but-not-actual-policy” comes from “election results”:

Advocates of the change cite local and state election results last week in Virginia and New York, where Democrats used sharper language and get-tough proposals to stave off Republican efforts to paint the party as weak on the issue.

In Virginia, for instance, where Democrats took control of the state Senate, one high-profile victory came in the Washington suburbs, where the winner distributed mailings in the campaign’s closing days proclaiming his opposition to in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.

In the article, Wallsten does call up one example of actual policy change that shows evidence that more than image politics is at play. He writes:

In Congress, a group of conservative Democrats, led by freshman Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, introduced legislation last week calling for more Border Patrol agents and a requirement that employers verify the legal status of workers. The proposal does not include measures to create a path to citizenship for millions of illegal workers, which in the past have been supported by Democrats nationally.

Significant here is the item left off the agenda which meets the theme of recalibration within the horse-race narrative: the “path to citizenship.” There is a missing context here though as to why the legislation is a “toughening” move and not “good or bad policy” when measured or evaluated against a list of standards: more agents (there are not enough) and “verification requirement” (verify how?). It would seem that this paragraph should form the bulk of the report if indeed the article were “about” the headline.

But then we bleed back into the “narrative”:

With polls showing broad discontent with the government’s handling of immigration, some Democrats are arguing that there are areas in which the party can toughen its image without moving too far away from its traditionally pro-immigration leanings – such as supporting heightened security at the Mexico border, opposing benefits for illegal immigrants and pushing for harsher penalties against businesses that hire illegal workers. (bolds mine)

I don’t understand the concluding list and why these “positions” constitute “pro-immigration leanings.”

The report is about demagoguery not about policy.

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