McCormack Speaks

Lots of News Coverage, Little Light Shed on Issues


by Robert Turner
Senior Fellow, McCormack Graduate School

You are not wrong. Your sense that this presidential campaign has been all but devoid of serious issue discussion is not just an impression; it is a fact.

One concrete indicator: the venerable Tyndall Report, which has been following TV news programs for nearly three decades, reported near the end of the campaign that issues coverage has been less than a third compared with any year since they began keeping track in 1988.

This raises two questions: Does it matter? And, if so, what is to be done.
Yes it matters. Even unruly campaigns usually serve a purpose in hashing out differences on some major issues, moving either toward consensus or at least toward clarity on the candidates’ positions. Then, once elected, the winner has a mandate to implement the policies he or she embraced on the stump.

Campaign promises are not empty – far from it. A Brookings study earlier this year noted research concluding that presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter had kept their campaign promises about 75 percent of the time. And, Brookings added, a report from found that President Barack Obama had made close to 500 promises during his two campaigns, and had delivered, or tried to, on some 80 percent of them.

Campaigns influence policy not only through the hand-to-hand combat of the candidates, but also through the response of the public. Even in this campaign, there was some movement: Donald Trump’s position on Muslim immigrants became somewhat less Draconian. And Hillary Clinton’s positions on the minimum wage and college financing became somewhat more liberal.

Yet these are exceptions.  As Andrew Tyndall remarked in his report, the network news programs focused overwhelmingly on personal qualities such as temperament. They gave minimal coverage to terrorism, gay rights, and immigration, and even less coverage to other major issues: “No trade, no healthcare, no climate change, no drugs, no poverty, no guns, no infrastructure, no deficit.”

What to do? It is just possible there is an answer that could turn this sour lemon of a campaign into lemonade.

Donald Trump now finds himself assuming the leadership of a country more deeply divided than at any time in more than a century. Many millions of Americans will feel unheard, frustrated, bitter, and deeply cynical. He cannot be expected to pull the nation together by strength of personality; there was, to put it mildly, no John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan running in either party this year.

Robert Turner (MPA, Harvard University) joined the McCormack Graduate School community as the Boston Globe Fellow in 2007, the same year he helped launch Commonwealth Compact. He spent the majority of his career at the Boston Globe serving as State House bureau chief and assistant city editor, columnist, chief editorial writer, and deputy editor of the editorial page.

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