12 January 2006

The Orchestra pit theory of political news coverage

This is as good a time as any to remind people of the Orchestra Pit Theory of political communications.

Credit for coming up with the little anecdote to illustrate the point goes to Roger Ailes, who these days heads up Fox News but in a previous life was a Republican Party communications whiz.

Basically, if there are two politicians on stage, one announces a cure for cancer and one falls into the orchestra pit, the guy in the pit will get the coverage.

There are a couple of versions of this going around. google and you'll find one. James Carville and Paul Begalla tell a slightly different version of it in their 2002 book Buck up, suck up and come back after you foul up.

As Carville and Begalla put it, news media love "to cover only four things in politics: scandals, gaffes, polls and attacks. Three of them are bad. So if you want to get coverage go on the offensive and stay there."

Of course, it should go without saying that it all depends on who you at aiming at in the offensive. Candidates normally aim at their opponent and as long as the attacks are factual, everything is just fine.

There will be people who bleat, complain and pontificate, but political campaigns are a winner-take-all affair.

After all, people have a right to see the sharp lines between candidates. Voters are choosing people to run our country, to make decisions that will affect each and every one of us on a daily basis. The choices aren't the same as which brand of toothpaste to buy. People deserve the chance to see the sharp lines between candidates and heaven knows there are sharp lines out there among all the contenders.

For some reason, this election has largely been about erasing the distinctions among the parties. Fundamentally, that's wrong.

[Fundamentally it's wrong for a crowd to sanctimoniously condemn attack ads and then run an entire campaign of their own around attacks.

But I digress.]

With all that in mind, have a look around and see if you can find genuine distinctions between candidates or among parties. There aren't as many as you'd think on major policy issues. In fact, it is almost scary the extent to which Conservatives are taking up New Democrat turf of supposedly detesting Americans, New Democrats want to get tough on crime and Liberals are the guys preaching fiscal responsibility, more cash for health care and people are pounding them.

Sharpening up the distinctions at election serves a useful purpose beyond giving political junkies something to blog about.

Planning a campaign that aims to differentiate a party from its rivals clears the political skulls. It sets a clear goal that the party can shoot for.

And voters would be able to hold political candidates and political parties genuinely accountable for things they would actually be able to do.

However, when campaigns are designed to blur distinctions, or push you to vote against something, everyone is getting shafted. We don't need proportional representation, or a reformed senate to fix elections.

We need political parties to actually stand for something different.