By Nathan Bierma

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"It keeps getting earlier, doesn't it?" says a presidential aide to an ambitious Congressman on The West Wing. On the show, it was the morning after Election Night, and the Congressman was already asking the aide about help for the presidential race four years later.

Here we are, 504 days from the real-life Election Day, (here's a second-by-second countdown if you want to be more specific), and already the presidential campaign is getting hard to ignore. Now that President Bush has officially announced that he's running, and the nine Democratic candidates have already appeared in their first debate, election coverage figures to be front-page news for the next year and a half.

The question is whether this is a good thing for our country. How much will the inevitable blanket coverage help us as citizens by enhancing our understanding of the candidates and the wisdom of their plans (or lack thereof), and how much of our time will be wasted by tireless speculation about campaign strategy and poll numbers? The guess here is strategy will again win out, and democracy will be an election loser. In May 1999, with 502 days until the 2000 presidential election, I wrote at my personal Web site about a Newsweek cover story on Al Gore's strategy, including an interview asking him why he was "behind early." Never mind what Gore wanted to actually do as president—something the country hadn't had a chance to hear yet. Four years later, Time magazine has already run a cover story on what the Democrats need to do to win in 2004 (summary here), two weeks after a feature on President Bush's election "playbook" (summary here). Elsewhere, a style of who's-hot-and-who's-not election reporting has taken over.

In incisive critique of the news media, Breaking the News: How The Media Undermine American Democracy, James Fallows says that the media have a "one-track mind"—an outlook he calls Reductio ad Electum—reducing the importance of current events to merely how they affect political strategy. National security, the economy and health care are presented to us not as issues but as means by which politicians gain or lose power. And so after a terrorist bombing in Riyadh last month, one of the first things I heard on the evening news was not what happened and why, but how Democrats could be expected to use this to make President Bush look bad on national security. In a recent front-page New York Times story on whether low-income tax credits would be included in the new batch of tax cuts, the focus was whether Republicans would be hurt by criticism of how they handled the bill, not why lawmakers thought the policy itself was a good or bad idea. "The relentless emphasis on the cynical game of politics threatens public life itself," Fallows writes, "by implying day after day that the political sphere is mainly an arena in which ambitious politicians struggle for dominance, rather than a structure in which citizens can deal with worrisome collective problems."

No wonder citizens get cynical about politics and voting. How about a letter-writing campaign to editors asking them to find a way to more engagingly cover the issues this election cycle rather than settling for mind-numbing horse-race analysis? After all, it's in the media's interest to hold ours. Otherwise, it's going to be a long 504 days.


My October 2000 column on sports metaphors in election coverage
"Spirals of Cynicism," a lecture by Kathleen Hall Jamieson on the press and the public from Calvin College's January Series.

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From the London Guardian:

If you wanted to design an experiment to measure the effect on humans of almost inconceivably radical culture shock, you could not do much better than the one that has just begun to unfold with the arrival, deep in the American heartland, of the Somali Bantu. They are often referred to as one of the most isolated peoples on earth, and they are certainly one of the least westernised. Descended from slaves brought to Somalia from Mozambique and Tanzania, they worked in serfdom for decades before being forced to flee during the Somalian civil war. Mozambique and Tanzania refused to take them in, and for the past few years they have eked out an existence in Kenyan refugee camps. But now, in one of the largest transplantations of its type in recent history, most of the 12,000 Bantu tribespeople in Kenya are moving to the suburbs of the US, which granted them asylum in the late 90s. The Mberwa family—including Hassan's mother, Khadija, his wife Nurto, and six of their eight children, aged between two and 16—are the very first pioneers in the American west, only this time with freeways and Whataburgers. Full story
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