In “Pundits Thought Clinton Beat Sanders—but Did Viewers?” Gunar Olsen analyzes the mainstream and right-wing Internet-based media reporting on Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate in the US. Olsen focuses on the New York Times, America’s newspaper of record, National Journal, Slate, New Yorker, Forbes, and Red State (an online opinion platform which describes itself as “the Conservative Blog & Conservative News Source for Right of Center Activists”). Without exception, all of the media outlets whose reporting Olson reviews in his piece for FAIR concur in declaring Hillary Clinton as the clear winner of the debate.
The problem with the view media “opinion shapers” have rushed to offer the American public is its remarkable disconnect from the way the voters themselves have judged the performance of the five participants, in particular that of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. As Olson points out,
What the Times and these pundits failed to mention is the fact that every online poll we could find asking web visitors who won the debate cast Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as the winner—and not just by small margins, but by rather enormous ones.
Here’s the table of poll results Oslen has compiled.
Given these figures, let’s take a look at Slate‘s Josh Voorhees’ response to readers’ criticism that his assessment of Clinton’s performance in the debate—“surprisingly spectacular”—and the claim that she had won it were patently biased. It offers a particularly clear demonstration of how US opinion shapers—the term itself betrays the role the US media have now fully assumed, a role which excludes staunch commitment to fact, objectivity, or something as quaintly old-fashioned as truth, analysis and critique—justify their partisan reporting and their attempts to manipulate public opinion. Defending his October 13 article (itself a piece of instant journalism), Voorhees, a senior writer at Slate, starts off his defense by claiming that “instant online polls are informal and unscientific.“ Clearly, his opinion, in his opinion, must be closer to a “scientific” poll (about which, in a moment). Voorhees, however, has an added argument to undermine the credibility of the people who participated in all of the relevant online polls:
Respondents, meanwhile, don’t have even the slightest motivation to be objective; it’s hard to imagine a Hillary supporter casting an online vote for Bernie or vice versa, regardless of what he or she saw onstage…. [Online surveys are] mostly for entertainment (for the reader) and traffic (for the outlet). No one should mistake them for the scientific surveys done by professional pollsters.
Not only do “scientific” surveys rather than online polls give a more accurate and objective reflection of how candidates had performed, but the implication of Voorhees argument is that—for some reason he omits to explain—the majority of the viewers who rated Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders online happen to have been Sanders supporters assessing the candidates’ platforms and credibility in a biased, predetermined way. Wisely, Voorhees doesn’t develop this line of thought further as it would necessarily take him into the realm of batty conspiracy theories.
But why should the American voters who missed the actual debate put their trust in Voorhees’ judgment of who presented the better arguments rather than trust the overwhelming majority of their peers? After all, as Voorhees concedes, his perception of Hillary Clinton—“confident, poised, and unexpectedly aggressive” (and let’s note in passing that only in the US is “aggressive” an adjective of praise rather than opprobrium)—and his claim that she “won the CNN debate” is ”a subjective opinion.” Caught trying to defend a partisan piece of journalism, all Voorhees can come up with in the end is the assertion that his opinion—unlike that of the majority of the voters who watched the debate—is “an informed one”.
And there we have it: the brazen trotting out of the old argument by authority, bolstered by nothing but the self-annointed pundit’s claim to it. The spectacle would be mildly amusing or outright distasteful, depending on one’s tolerance for what the American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt tells us is technically known as bullshit, were it not for the influence political reporting by “opinion shapers” such as Voorhees has on the part of the electorate still willing to have their perceptions and political assessments given to them by mass-media writers (and, by extension, by those who pay them).
We can gauge that influence by the single outlier in the opinion polls on Tuesday’s debate, the one “scientific survey” we have: the Gravis Marketing automated telephone poll which found that 62% of the voters it reached believe Clinton had won, and only 30% think that Sanders had done so. As Gunar Olson notes, however, the Gravis Marketing poll “is described as a “random survey of 760 registered Democratic voters across the US”—not as a survey of people who actually watched the debate.”
Since 27 million or two-thirds of Democratic Party supporters did NOT watch the debate (only 15 million out of the 43 did), it is safe to assume that at least 66% of those reached by Gravis Marketing got their sense of how the candidates had done from the American corporate media and their employees. Barring an online conspiracy by Sanders’ supporters (the patently nutty implication of one of Voorhees’ pseudo-arguments above), the only logical, reality-based conclusion is that what the Gravis Marketing poll reflects is the effect corporate media have on the electorate’s perception of reality, the basis on which voters then conduct their political deliberations—and thus on democracy in America.