Yes, the Press Has Much to Answer For

By Mark Shields

October 27, 2018 4 min read

Our states are anything but united. Our politics are indeed polarized — with too many of us Americans retreating into our own comfortable spaces, where we can associate only with those who agree with us. And yes, we of the press are anything but blameless for this situation.

Take the simple matter of Election Day exit polls, which we in the press, including your semi-faithful correspondent, absolutely devour. The reason is understandable: Whereas the best of national pre-election polls — which are statistically accurate to within a couple of percentage points — involve interviews with a few hundred likely voters, the exit polls interview thousands of real live voters just after they have voted and before anyone knows who has won that day's election.

Because of the enormous number of voters interviewed, exit polls allow us to analyze how subgroups of the electorate actually voted. For example, we know how white men with a college degree (17 percent of all voters) differed in their presidential choices from white women with a college degree (20 percent of all voters). In 2016, white female college grads chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a 51-44 percent margin, while white male college grads preferred Trump over Clinton by a 53-39 percent margin.

This is all interesting, but, along with the contemporary campaigns' fascination with and dependency on voter metrics, it does encourage the slicing and dicing of the American electorate, wherein the candidate — the 2016 Clinton campaign was conspicuous for this approach — has policy positions or tailored messages for the narrowest of demographic constituencies. It cannot be long before a campaign will boast of how well its candidate is doing with the key voter group of agnostic non-college-educated vegan cross-dressers who are equally suspicious of the theory of climate change and the theory of gravity.

We in the press must cease being mesmerized by the latest state-of-the-art abstraction from some bloodless technological wizards who have never even talked to an actual voter and meet our obligations to our fellow citizens. We must, for example, insist that any candidate explain in simple, declarative sentences — without once mentioning the name or the character defects of her opponent — why she is running for the office she seeks. "If your opponent withdrew tomorrow, why would you be running?" "If you were to win, what change in public policy would you work hardest to make in office, and how would it change the lives of all the people whom you represent?"

The candidate's responsibility is to speak to — and for — all the people at the same time. A candidate's temptation is to tell each private audience with its own private agenda what it most wants to hear and thus secure that specific group's approval and its votes. We of the press must make sure every candidate's private pledges are public knowledge.

Reporters must press a candidate to name one significant issue on which he differs from his own party's position, to name one controversial matter on which he believes his opponent or the opposition party has been right and deserves some credit. Can the candidate pass the "rule of one" test, developed by Mitch Daniels, who was the governor of Indiana and is the current president of Purdue University? That would mean the candidate has the independence and courage to break — on at least one major issue — with his own party's lockstep orthodoxy.

There is much more we in the political press could do to improve our coverage of candidates, campaigns and the public debate. But the time is short, and the task is urgent.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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