Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Self-Perpetuating Myth

Yesterday’s New York Times carried an excellent story about exit polls and how they create self-perpetuating media myths:
[I]n five states, voters in Republican contests were asked their religious affiliation, and in four states they were asked how frequently they attended religious services. Voters in Democratic contests were asked those questions in only three states.

In four states, voters for Republican candidates were asked how much it mattered that a candidate shared their religious beliefs. Nowhere was that question put to voters for Democratic candidates.

And most notably, in every state voters in Republican caucuses and primaries were asked if they were born-again or evangelical Christians. Voters in Democratic caucuses and primaries were never asked.

The media has long perpetuated the myth that all Christians (especially Evangelicals) are Republican. They support this myth by presenting far-right people of faith like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed and Richard Land as the face of American Christianity. Even though American Christianity is far more diverse than that, and even though there are prominent and influential people on the religious Left -- Jim Wallis, Sister Joan Chittister and Rev. Welton Gaddy are three names that come to mind -- and even though these leaders represent millions of faithful, they are rarely invited to participate in news panels and their views are rarely offered to the public. It’s as if they don’t exist.

Of course they don’t exist. Because the media has already decided on the storyline: Christian = Republican. Why present any views that differ from that? Why, in an exit poll, would anyone want to ask Democrats if they are Christian? We all know that all Christians are Republican!

This is what I hate about exit polls and the Corporate Media. They aren’t interested in facts, or real news stories. They’re only interested in spreading their approved version of the facts. They only want to tell their approved version of the story. Who are you going to believe: ABC News, or your own lying eyes?

The National Election Pool conducts state and national exit polls. It consists of representatives from the corporate media: ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC and The Associated Press. The exit poll questions asked, according to the article, are “what the polls’ “journalist clients” feel is most important for their articles.” In other words, the corporate media comes up with exit poll questions based on stereotypes they’ve created about the two political parties. And I think these stereotyped views are evident in the corporate media’s day-to-day political coverage, too.

I'm not the only one. Evangelical leaders have complained about this disparity in exit polling, but their complaints have fallen on deaf ears. Sorry, folks, the story has already been written:

In the meantime, the nine unhappy evangelical leaders fear a kind of vicious circle. Is “an outdated script” about religion and Republicans, in Mr. Dean’s phrase, unduly influencing the exit poll questions, the answers that are in turn influencing reporting and analysis by reporters, newscasters and pundits, which in turn influence future poll questions. Is campaign coverage and discussion being diverted from new developments among both evangelicals and Democrats?

Of course it is. And it’s not just the media’s assumption about Christians. It shows up in a whole variety of other places.

For example, the media always assumes that people in the military are Republican. But the military is as much a cross-section of America as any other profession. Trust me, there are plenty of Democrats in the military--especially since so many Republicans these days have better things to do than fight their precious Iraq War.

Exit polls will continue to paint a skewed portrait of American political views, as long as the media insists on weaving their pet narratives into the process.

And media coverage of American political life will continue to suck, as long as the corporate media only asks those questions to which it already has the answers.