With a mere 500 days between now and election day 2016, you may be wondering how to wade through the media morass and emerge from this campaign an informed, engaged, and decision-ready citizen. It might not look easy, since much of the coverage of the campaign seems designed to make you dumber and more cynical. But with a few simple rules in mind, you can sift the good from the bad and make your own personal campaign both interesting and informative. Here, 10 rules for the smart media consumer:
1. It's OK to care about the horse race, but it should be consumed in moderation. Most of the coverage in mainstream media is about the horse race — who's ahead, who's behind, who's surging, who's fading. Scholars also sometimes call it "strategy coverage," because it views everything through a strategic frame. When a candidate unveils a new plan for immigration reform, for instance, instead of evaluating its feasibility, reporters spend time talking about how the campaign plans to use it and whether it will appeal to targeted demographic groups.
The trouble is that the horse race is what lends the campaign much of its dramatic interest. And those of us who care about politics love the horse race. Nevertheless, the horse race is only part of the story — we're also electing the person who will be president for the next four years, and will have an impact on all our lives. So don't feel guilty about caring about the horse race; even watching coverage of Donald Trump doesn't make you a bad person. Just leaven that with some reading (or watching or listening) about the more substantive parts of the campaign.
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2. Ignore all "gaffe" coverage. Candidates spend a lot of time talking extemporaneously, and they sometimes make mistakes. These mistakes are then seized by their opponents, who try to convince everyone that whatever the candidate said reveals the toxic rot at the heart of his or her soul. Unfortunately, journalists treat "gaffes" the same way. But my personal rule — and this ought to apply to both candidates you like and ones you despise — is to ask this question: If you gave the offender a chance to make whatever point he was making, would he say it the same way? If the answer is, "Of course not," then it ought to be ignored. If the only justification the press can offer for why they're paying so much attention to a particular gaffe is that the candidate's opponents are making a big deal out of it, then it's almost certainly meaningless. Which leads to…
3. Remember that not everything is consequential. Reporters have a strong incentive to portray everything that happens on the campaign trail as profoundly important. After all, who wants to think it's their job to spend time talking and writing about things that don't matter? But most of what happens on the trail does not in fact matter very much. A blip in the polls or a gaffe is almost always discussed as if it will end up being the turning point that changed everything. But it probably won't be.
4. Pay close attention to the candidates' promises. This is a key one, because presidents keep, or at least try to keep, almost all the promises they make as candidates, as a great deal of political science research has shown. If you want to know what their priorities are going to be, you don't have to figure out whether they loved their mothers or whether they had a secret Marxist mentor. You just need to look at what they're saying they plan to do.
5. Changes in position are important — but not because they reveal "flip-flopping." The assumption behind the "flip-flopper" attack is that a candidate who has changed his or her mind on an important issue has revealed a disturbing character flaw. But flip-flops actually tell us how parties have evolved, which is important to know because presidents are creatures of their parties. Mitt Romney changed his positions on many issues in order to line up with the GOP he sought to lead. Would he have flipped back to become a moderate Republican once again if he had gained the White House? Not on your life. Similarly, Hillary Clinton's evolution on issues like immigration and gay rights show how the Democratic Party has become more liberal.
6. Believe that candidates can be sincere. The assumption beneath most campaign reporting is that the campaign is theater and everything candidates say is dishonest. It's all done to appeal to some demographic sub-group or other, and the "real" story is the strategy behind what they're saying. But there's little to be lost by assuming that candidates actually mean what they say. After all, they're human beings with real beliefs. And even if they're making commitments for cynical reasons, as we said, they're likely to honor them. So you lose little by assuming that they're being sincere.
7. Find the connection between the personal and the political. Much of campaign coverage is devoted to exploring who these candidates are — their histories, their personalities, their family life, and so on. All of which is interesting — after all, part of the reason this drama holds our attention is that it's a drama with sometimes compelling personalities. But we shouldn't forget that the personal things we learn only occasionally tell us something meaningful about what kind of president these people would be.
For instance, a while back The New York Times did a story on Marco Rubio's personal finances, which showed some unwise spending on his part. But if you want to know what kind of fiscal steward Rubio would be, that doesn't tell you anything — you'll learn a lot more from the economic plan he's released, which is far more disturbing than the fact that he once bought a boat he couldn't afford.
8. Look for the nuts and bolts. Candidates often operate at a high level of abstraction, but if we're going to judge their plans, we need to know how things would actually work. If someone says, "I want to repeal ObamaCare and replace it with a patient-centered system," you really need to ask how this magical new system is going to work. If they're saying they'll amend the Constitution for some reason, don't forget that actually, they won't. Is there evidence that the economic proposals a candidate is offering will actually produce the effects he claims? How is a Democratic candidate going to get things past a Republican-led Congress? What do things like "I want to restore America's place in the world" actually mean, in specific policy terms? Candidates would often rather we just focus on the fluttering flags and inspiring words of hope, but the devil is always in the details.
9. Keep asking, "What does this mean for the next presidency?" After all, that's what this whole thing is supposed to be about. If you can't come up with an answer for why this week's micro-controversy or last week's debate bickering actually tells us something about the things the next president will do, then it almost certainly doesn't. You'd think this would always be near the top of our minds, but the idea that the campaign is supposed to help us understand the next presidency is missing from most of the coverage.
10. If your usual news sources suck, look around for some others. As much as we might criticize campaign coverage (deservedly so), there's never been a better time to be a news consumer. Any time the media as a whole misses a story or gets it wrong, there will be at least one journalist somewhere who got it, and got it right. If you don't like the way your local paper or your evening newscast is covering the campaign, there are a thousand other sources you can go to and find what you want. It isn't all that hard to become not only informed but even thoughtful about the campaign and what will follow. The internet brings all things to you.
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