Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Who's Apathetic - Voters or Mainstream Media?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket"I hate municipal elections. I know how important they are, but to vote intelligently, you have to do some real research, and not enough people bother."

"In case you're wondering (and, really, who isn't?) turnout in the Valley is sluggish today."

The former comment comes from Morning Call columnist Bill White: the latter from Morning Call statehouse reporter John Micek. I admire and respect them both. To be fair, Bill made those remarks as the preface to a blog about appellate judge elections, which are confusing. And Micek tells me he actually wishes we had high turnouts like those in Europe.

But I still wish those remarks were never made. They give the impression they don't give a damn about local races. It encourages voter apathy.

Party bosses predicted a 15-17% turnout in yesterday's municipal primary. Lehigh County's registrar of voters stated turnout was "busier than I anticipated." Northampton County's voter registrar claimed 15% of eligible voters had already voted by 1 PM. The Morning Call's headline for this online article? "Lehigh Valley voter turnout slow so far." Doesn't that misleading description also promote voter apathy?

Obviously, the turnout in yesterday's election is much lower than you'll see in a presidential election. It was slow - but not for a municipal primary. If it's between 15-17%, it's a normal turnout. Approximately 30,000 votes were cast in Northampton County, not including absentee ballots. That's about 16% of Northampton County's registered voters. Of course this is too low, but it still met expectations.

During most election cycles, when local candidates strive to have their message heard, the print media hide. Candidates are encouraged to buy ads to get their points across, or have supporters send letters to the editor. This scant coverage makes it impossible for poorly funded candidates to deliver their message. Most citizens have no time to do the "real research." This media policy of paucity promotes incumbents and well-funded candidates.

Bill White acknowledges this himself. "[I]t has to be frustrating to keep trying and trying to get your message out -- in the back rooms of diners, in quiet hotel meeting rooms, on busy street corners -- knowing that in many cases, almost no one will show up, and no one will hear about it."

Many people, who don't really know the candidates or issues, stay away. And then the mainstream media will charge them with voter apathy.

But people really are hungry.

Yesterday, there were 669 visits and 1,643 page views on this very small blog. That's about 200 more than I'm used to seeing on any weekday. People are, in fact, interested in their own government. That's why it's sad to see so little attention from the mainstream. They are the pros. Bloggers lack their credibility. We need them.

Limited resources and space hamstring the mainstream. But the result is fewer votes and declining subscriptions. That's why the Internet is such a useful asset. The Morning Call did post election results online, and Jim Deegan had a terrific post about Mike Fleck's campaign signs in Easton.

Mainstream media could easily use the Internet to make campaign finance reports in local races available. I'll be trying that myself. They establish blogs for Mayfair and Musikfest - why not local races? Increased coverage of these local issues and elections, would both serve the public and might increase circulation.

Now I'll go back to picking my nose.


LehighValleyHousewife said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Micek said...

Your point about 'blogs for local races is well-taken. That'd be a great way to build up public interest in these admittedly low-profile races.
I'll cede some of the ground -- we really ought to do a better job of covering these races. Limited resources sometimes dictate that we cannot. But I believe 'blogs like yours serve as a critical adjunct. There's only so much space in the news pages, but you guys can (and do) go to town on specific races, and that's great.
And as I mentioned to you earlier -- I'd love it if we could get 84 percent turnout in any election, not just for an American Idol finale.

Chris Casey said...

We've gotten lazy, and we aren't going to appreciate how precious our opportunity to chart our future is until we have squandered it. I was always amazed in Germany atthe Voter Turnout, for them it was a big party. Maybe that's how we should spur turnout, vote and get the beverage of your choice!
I'm thinking Tequila!

Joey Long and the Boys' Worst Nightmare said...

Who goes to vote when they get Lamont McClure, Ron Angle, and a bunch of uncontested primaries? More so than the bad press coverage, negative ads help drive down turnout, as most common folks decide "why bother?" It's disgusting. Between the Democratic machine and the GOP's shady characters, it just doesn't resonate with the public.

LVDem said...

the last campaign that I worked on, I gave the candidate this advice: "If you want to get press from your local paper, request a 15 minute meeting with the editor and accounts exec. take $10k and say that you would like to open an advertising line with the paper for future ads. You don't have any yet, but you'll talk to the advertising people in a month or two about those ads. Then offer to assist the reporters in any way that you can in order to make their jobs possible. Then, on your way out, give the editor two press kits and thank him for the time."

This paper had never before endorsed a Democrat and this Democrat had run for the same office in the previous election. In the previous election they ran 2 positive articles, 1 background article her and 5 negatives about her. The second time around, they ran 9 positives and one article that was neither positive nor negative but did discuss a mailer that was sent out. They also published 5X more letters to the editor.

I'm not saying that you have to buy coverage from the papers, but I'm saying that there is an element that most candidates miss: newspapers are businesses. If a candidate is looking for free handouts from the paper to reach voters (which is what an article is really), then the paper isn't going to take the candidate seriously b/c it isn't a profitable relationship.

And what bugs me about this the most is that it was the best advice that I could give that candidate. But it goes back to the old saying of "money walks and bullshit talks." Well, that 10k investment probably won that election.

Anonymous said...

1. The Call's policy is to no longer cover candidate press conferences. This gives incumbants a huge advantage.

2. We (rightly or wrongly, but not the point I'm trying to make here) castigate local candidates who raise lots of money, which is the ONLY way, without the press, to communicate with the greatest number of voters.

3. We bemoan the re-election of the same slack-jawed mouth breathers over and over again.

Anyone see an epistemological disconnect here?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Epistemological disconnect? Don't think so. I think you're trying vainly to justify large campaign contributions. But let's look at your points.

1) The MC won't cover a candidate's press conferences? Untrue. last week, both the ET and MC sent reporters to cover a Will Power press conference. They covered several Dertinger press conferences when he ran for congress, and Bonnie Dodge press conferences when she squared off against Boscola. But I'll agree with you that the MSM is relucant to cover a candidate's campaign.

2) We don't castigate local candidates who raise a lot of money, just those that take money from people who are looking for government handouts. Some candidates can raise lots of money in small contributions. Look at Obama.

3) We do tend to re-elect incumbents who have a tremendous advantage. They do have better press access, lots of money from special interests and taxpayer-funded ads. But that does not justify a challenger who accepts gobs of money from those seeking handouts.

John Micek said...

An important addenda: I firmly believe my collegues at the mothership provide bang-on coverage of local government. That should not have been left off my previous post.

Bernie O'Hare said...


You'll get no argument from me. I think both papers provide outstanding coverage of local government. But when it comes to local elections, both MSM and blogs could do much better. I made a few suggestions for the MSM. But they apply to us, too.

I just mention the MSM becuase you folks have a lot more credibility. We're one step above talk radio, and I'm not sure we deserve even that elevated status.

In hindsight, I think I should have copied a few of the more outrageous local campaign finance reports, scanned them, and loaded them up onto the blog. I'll be looking into that now.

Anonymous said...

I know of one, possibly two candidates in the Bethlehem City Council race that wanted to have press conferences. The policy of both papers was no coverage. Since the Dem primary in Beth. is the same as the general this is just plain wrong. It shows the papers, like developers and some generous individuals are looking for something. Oh by the way,I heard from a candidate that once an editor said want a story buy some space. Problem is I helped a candidate ten years ago and the rates were obscene then

Bernie O'Hare said...

Although I don't believe there's any policy to refuse to cover candidates' press conferences, my point is that the MSM does hide every elections cycle. As a result, it's hard for candidates to talk about the issues. Yes, they do a piece about each election, but sometimes that's not enough.

Now it might be monetary, but I think print media are concerned about being spun by people who aren't really saying anything. It's a legitimate concern. There's only so much space, anmd what is very interesting to a Bethlehemite may not mean anything to a MC or ET reader in Portland.

That's why I think the print media could make better use of the Internet. just as blogs are set up for Musikfest and things like that, why not set up blogs for things like the Bethlehem City Council race? A reporter could post daily events there and people would spice it up with their own comments.

That way money isn't as important. Candidates who have the dough will still spend it on ads bc they want to make at least six contacts wiith every voter.

True, we bloggers can do that too, but the guys and gals in the MSM are the pros.

Anonymous said...

To further illustrate your point about the MSM not covering elections, Kurt Bresswein from the ET asked questions at 2 of the candidates forums in the Bethlehem City Council race, and yet the ET did not have one article about those forums. Why? Because it was the ET's policy not to cover candidates forums. The MSM media can write an article about voter apathy and low turnout, but yet a paper like the ET failed to inform the public of the candidates positions at the forum. The MSM should not write articles about low voter turnout and apathy, when they failed to do their part to make the voters informed.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, but since the high point of newspaper readership was around 1950, they are withering at the vine. Today there are numerous venues to get info so the smug editors no longer hold the sway they once had. Now they have to share their biased opinionated idiot views with biased opinionated rainmen bloggers like ohare.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Hey! I'm an idiot, too!

J. Spike said...

Thanks for the news flash!

Anonymous said...

actually, i specifically did NOT try to justify large campaign contributions (although on a personal basis, they do make me giddy like a school girl)- hence the parenthetical statement about rightly or wrongly. you must have missed that.

rather, my point was that 3) is an outgrowth of 1) and 2). and if you don't like special interests influencing elections, then the papers better cover the local campaigns better than they've done recently. otherwise vast sums of money become the ONLY way to run most campaigns.

and they're not- ask any candidate in the bethlehem council race. they were told by the MC that the Call does NOT cover candidate press conferences any more.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 6:11!

It's getting chilly in here. And you are correct. I distinguish candidates who raise lots of money in the form of small, grass roots contributions and those who accept big sums from outfits looking for something.

Now if you have someone who raises money that way, he can wage a campaign without the help of the press.

But since most candidates don't get their dough that way, you are unfortunately correct.

Anonymous said...

see how much better we get along when you don't shout?

and dang, you're getting good at this id thing. what gave it away, "epistemological" or "giddy like a school girl"?

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Epistemological" made me suspicious. I can't think of a single Dem in this area who knows what that means, excepting you. And most of my R friends haven't learned how to read. But I couldn't be sure because there were no monkey references. "Giddy like a schoolgirl" gave you away. Always nice to hear from you. May the Peace of Christ be upon you. Or how about - Peace on you!

Anonymous said...

as a Druid, i will accept the latter.