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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Squeakiest Wheels Get the Media Oil

August 25, 2017

As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the oil.

And it seems that the most abrasive wheels, the squeakiest wheels, get the most ink and the most air time — at least in Congress. A new study finds that ideological extremists in the U.S. House get more coverage than moderates in major news outlets and “extreme Republicans are more likely to earn media attention than extreme Democrats.” In fact, moderate GOP House members get only a third of the coverage of the “most extreme representatives.”

Researchers Michael Wagner of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Mike Gruszczynski of Austin Peay State University in Tennessee tallied how often federal lawmakers appeared in the New York Times from 1993 through 2012 — during the Clinton, Bush II and Obama presidencies — and on NBC and CBS evening newscasts in 2011-2012.

The implications for journalists and citizens are significant in what the authors describe as “an era of increased partisan polarization at the elite level.” Our traditional American journalism values fair, balanced and accurate reporting, and our two-party system makes it easy for professional journalists to report objectively by citing sources from each party, even if many of those sources espouse extreme political views, the study says.

Of course, extremist views are far from rare in U.S. political history, and the study reminds me of the speech that Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater made when accepting the GOP presidential nomination in 1964: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the defense of justice is no virtue.”

In their study published in the journal Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Wagner and Gruszczynski write, “The decision of whose opinion to give voice to is an especially consequential one in American politics. If journalists are systematically more likely to choose to cover those who speak the most stridently on the congressional floor, they are likely to quote ideological extremists who tend to speak in intense, partisan terms.”

They identify two good reasons why reporters might seek quotes from the extreme ends of both major parties. First, those members of Congress are likelier than moderates to make public statements on legislation. And second, “despite high-minded protestations to the contrary, the news audience likes a good fight.”

The findings provide reaffirmation for publicity-hungry and PR-savvy members of Michigan’s congressional delegation. Republicans Justin Amash of Cascade Township, Bill Huizinga of Zeeland, John Moolenaar of Midland, Mike Bishop of Rochester and Tim Walberg of Tipton rank among the most conservative members of Congress based on their votes on legislation.

Amash in particular relishes a reputation for firebrand rhetoric and doesn’t limit his attacks to Democrats. He isn’t shy about attacking fellow Republicans, as he again made clear in a recent fundraising plea: “So many Republicans run for office promising to respect the Constitution but fail to do so when they arrive,” he said, adding that “the establishment…will never stop working to defeat you, me and our constitutional conservative allies.”

In terms of national publicity, Amash’s approach is paying off: His name — often with quotes — appeared about 15 times in the New York Times between January 1 and August 23 of this year.

On the left, John Conyers of Detroit is the most quotable Democrat in the delegation — and consistently rates among the most liberal members of Congress. He’s appeared in about the same number of Times articles as Amash so far this year on topics ranging from North Korea to government surveillance to presidential ethics.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt publicity-wise to offer zinger lines to the press, such as Conyers’s quoted comment about GOP immigration legislation: “This bill perpetuates the fiction that immigrants are inherently criminals.”

By contrast, the name of the more centrist Democrat from Flint, Rep. Dale Kildee, popped up only once in the Times so far in 2017.

Gruszczynski told me that the analysis shows that Michigan Republicans “have polarized more than Democrats,” adding, “In fact, Michigan Democrats have become less extreme, on average, over this time period.”

Former U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Trenton was a moderate Democrat during his lengthy tenure before retiring in 2014. Media-wise, Democrats benefited statistically from Dingell’s presence in the delegation — not because of ideological extremism but because of the long time he spent in the House and his clout as chair or ranking minority member of a powerful committee.

Overall, the study’s authors say their findings “suggest that moderation may not be an enduring news value.” The study sends a message to politicians as well, saying, “For those who might be strategically avoiding promoting a message, dispassionate rhetoric and moderate positions are more likely to get the cold should from reporters looking to fill their copy with drama and conflict.”

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

August 24, 2017 · Filed under Freedman



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