Conflict Perverse

With Election Day just over a week away, naturally the closest races are getting the most attention. But does that mean that citizens are receiving ...
by | October 30, 2006
 

With Election Day just over a week away, naturally the closest races are getting the most attention. But does that mean that citizens are receiving the most important information?

For instance, when was the last time you read a story, outside the New York papers, about the New York governor's race? The election of Eliot Spitzer, the state's powerhouse attorney general, has been a foregone conclusion for so long that it's hard to gin up any real interest in his race. Why write yet another story about his 40-point polling lead?

And yet Spitzer, who has been inarguably one of the most significant figures in state government over the last several years, may become an even bigger national political celebrity as governor of the third-largest state. The differences between what he's done as AG and what he could do as governor are real and may have repercussions that would be felt well beyond New York State. Therefore, shouldn't the media pay more attention to his ideas -- not less -- since he's all but certain to win?

How about the next governor of the fourth-largest state? The attorney general in Florida, Charlie Crist, has been seen as the presumptive winner there. But I scarcely remember seeing anything about that race until just the other day, when a poll suggested it was suddenly a toss-up.

When it looked like it was all Crist, wouldn't that have been a good time for stories about what the post-Jeb Florida future might look like? Isn't that just as valid a story as the race tightening?

Maybe not. If there's one truth amid the myriad complaints about media bias, it's that reporters love conflict. We give lots of coverage to races when they're close and comparatively little attention to matters such as what Candidate X's proposal on health care is or what it would do if put into practice.

I remember covering the agriculture spending bill in Congress back in 1999. I had that particular beat pretty much to myself, until the day when Rep. Tom Coburn (now a senator from Oklahoma) attached an anti-abortion amendment to the bill on the House floor. Suddenly, agriculture spending didn't seem that boring and it got a lot of attention.

Of course, my colleagues didn't write much about agriculture spending, even then. If there is a fight about one or two provisions in a bill in any legislature, those are the provisions that will get written about. The remaining 95 percent of the bill -- the actual policy being debated -- may forever remain a mystery to people outside the relevant committee.

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