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November 23, 2004

Reaching for Moral Values in the Post Election Debris

Guest writer (and blogger) Weldon Berger: "The press have missed a lot of big stories in recent years. In this instance, though, the herd stampeded itself into thinking they'd missed a story when in fact they hadn't." On the brief life of "moral values" as the big decider the press overlooked.

Weldon Berger is a freelance writer living in Hawaii and he writes Betty the Crow News—“Politics, satire and rants”—a journalism weblog that’s clever and informed. (He’s looking for helpers who write well so check into it.) I asked him to examine mea culpas from the press after Nov. 2nd, and he came back with this, on the brief life of “moral values” as the election factor the press was said to have missed. I added a brief commentary at the end. Thanks, Weldon.

Special to PressThink

Reaching for Moral Values in the Post Election Debris

by Weldon Berger
BTC News

One of the first big stories to emerge from the post-election debris was the unexpected importance of “moral values” to the outcome of the contest. Pre-election polls consistently showed Iraq, the economy and terrorism as the top three issues, but election-day exit polls showed a plurality of voters more concerned about moral values than any other single issue. These were results that left a number of national pundits and a host of prominent Democrats sputtering, and a number of conservative spokesfolk beaming triumphantly.

Thus the same people who moments earlier had been trashing the exit polls for suggesting a convincing Kerry victory throughout much of election day suddenly got exit-poll religion on the moral values question.

Pollster James Zogby, who had predicted a Kerry victory, pronounced himself “baffled,” adding that “there is a huge sense of elitism among pollsters and the media on the role of religion in our society.” In the same San Francisco Chronicle article, Ohio AFL-CIO leader Bill Burga, also expecting a Kerry win, appeared to regard conservative religious voters as some sort of mysterious woodland creatures, saying that his organization needed to “identify and locate those people” so that he and his could talk with them and theirs.

Newsweek’s Howard Fineman—who narrowly lost out to the New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller for New York Press columnist Matt Taibbi’s Wimblehack award—described himself to Howard Kurtz as an “indicted co-conspirator” in the media’s failure to understand Red America. Kurtz also got John Roberts from CBS, who equates moral values with wedge issues, on record as saying that “we all kind of missed the boat” on recognizing the importance of those issues and values. These were meant as confessions.

Sam Donaldson told an audience at the University of North Carolina: “Anybody who goes windsurfing as the great American sport doesn’t understand what they do in Omaha.” (In this instance, it’s the down-home Donaldson who’s clueless about Nebraska, home to the Toucan Open stop on the US Windsurfing national circuit. Not that Kerry ever referred to windsurfing as the great American sport.)

Salon’s tech editor, Andrew Leonard, blames his own otherness on the echo chamber effect (day pass or subscription required). NBC’s Brian Williams would no doubt admonish Leonard to get out and “spend a night in Dayton and Toledo and Cincinnati and Denver and in the middle of Kansas.” And Donaldson would warn Williams not to forget Omaha, whence the latter hails.

Chicago Tribune editorial desk deputy John McCormick pronounced it true: “The inescapable verdict is that many of us missed clue after clue to the true arc of Campaign 2004.” He adopted Jon Friedman’s theory (registration required) that the respective gross ticket sales of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” represented leading electoral indicators that the press ignored. Thus did the handy misleading symbol—moral values—beget other handy and misleading symbols.

It wasn’t just journalists. Democratic politicians and strategists clambered aboard. The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach spent 1800 words on a story quoting extensively from Gary Bauer and other conservative religious activists who weren’t shy about endorsing the concept of victory by moral values ambush. Connecticut senator Christopher Dodd said that Democrats “have lost the ability to connect with people’s value systems and we’re going to have to work to get that back,” a scenario Focus on the Family founder James Dobson finds unlikely so long as the likes of Patrick Leahy infest the Senate.

“I don’t know if he hates God,” Dobson said of Leahy in an interview with The Oklahoman, “but he hates God’s people.”

The big balloon popper, of course, is that almost all of the moral values angst and triumphalism can be chalked up to a poorly written exit poll. When all the numbers were crunched, the percentage of voters who identified moral values as their top priority in 2004 was about the same as in 2000.

This is not to say that religious conservatives aren’t exercising a great deal of clout, post election. They are. Pennsylvania’s Republican senator Arlen Specter had to subject himself to an exercise reminiscent of Soviet-style self-criticism in order to ascend to the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, after he made noises about wanting the president to send down Supreme Court nominees who weren’t disposed toward overturning Roe v. Wade. But the nature of Specter’s woes isn’t a mystery; it’s an unsubtle exercise in power politics requiring no explanatory gymnastics from the press.

The reality is that almost half of John Kerry’s votes came from red states, and much of the Bush margin of victory resulted from inroads he made in the blue states. A majority of voters support either gay marriage or civil unions, and a substantial majority support keeping abortion legal. And contrary to the Post’s Achenbach, there’s a really good chance that some red state John Deere dealers could manage an afternoon at Cafe Milano without breaking a sweat.

The press have missed a lot of big stories in recent years. We’ve seen grudging mea culpas from the New York Times and Washington Post (and now, the networks) for their shoddy coverage of pre- and post-invasion Iraq, and from many outlets for their failure to pick up on the Abu Ghraib scandal until, literally, the photos were shoved under their noses. (Read this AJR piece on Abu Ghraib. You’ll be astonished by some of the comments from grown-up editors and reporters.) In a few months, they’ll be apologizing for missing the boat on the flattening of Falluja.

In this instance, though, the herd stampeded itself into thinking they’d missed a story when in fact they hadn’t. As Howard Kurtz noted in the column mentioned earlier, a relatively small number of Ohio voters could have had journalists galloping after a story line about the unprecedented defeat of a sitting wartime president.

None of which is to say that the journalists who wandered into the moral values cul-de-sac aren’t out of touch with red state denizens. They are, but their difficulty in coming to terms with the dynamics of the election suggests they’re equally out of touch with the rest of the country and with some basic journalistic verities as well.

Weldon Berger is a free-lance writer living in Hawaii—“pretty smart if somewhat underassertive,” as he says—and the author of a weblog, BTC News.

Jay Rosen Adds: Yesterday, the Washington Post’s polling director gave the final send off to “moral values” as a valid construction capable of explaining the election. Here is what Richard Morin said in an online chat with Post readers. Weldon had this too, from another source, but I like the way Morin puts it:

This year, the networks did something incredibly stupid. They included “moral values” on a list of specific issues—terrorism, Iraq, the economy, health care, among others—and asked people what was the most important issue in determining their vote. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

But why was it dumb? Because moral values is not an “issue” so much as a component of other issues. Listing it alongside health care and terrorism is like a category mistake. Morin uses a term many others use in the situation: frame.

Moral values, like religion, is a frame whereby issues are evaluted, not a specific issue in and of itself. People who rated Iraq as the top issue likely were applying their values and morals to making that determination, as were people who rated terrorism as their top voting concern. In the exit poll, “moral values” seemed to serve as a surrogate for people who really thought a basketful of specific issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion or stem-cell research were important. Each of these is a real and important issues and each should have been listed idividually, but wasn’t. Ironically, the L.A. Times has been including ‘moral values’ on its issues list for years, and it always is the top listed “issue.”

In other words, the news value in a catgeory mistake ranking first with 22 percent was approximately zero. “Unfortunately,” said Morin, “we will be living with the confusion over the ‘moral values’ question for four more years.”

That’s plenty of time to correct the narrative. You have to wonder, though, why confess to something you didn’t do— misunderstand a decisive factor called moral issues? Everyone should have a theory on that. Which is why god created the comment feature. Hit the button and tell us what you find in the brief life cycle of the moral values meme among journalists.

I leave you with the words of Howard Fineman from Newsweek, MSNBC and innumerable talk shows, a man with a genius for being right at middle C in the chattering class chorus:

Journalists “don’t understand red-state America,” says Newsweek’s Howard Fineman. “I’m an indicted co-conspirator… . Most people in what is left of the big media live and work in blue-state America, and that shaped our view of the election.”

Maybe moral values was code for something bothering journalists about their performance in 2004. But what?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

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Posted by Jay Rosen at November 23, 2004 1:42 PM