- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2002

In the grand tradition of ghosts and goblins, today's theme leads with a scary mystery. Call it the Halloween Vanishing Voter Caper because guaranteed, the press will write many versions of it after next week's midterm elections.
The story line goes like this: Given the small number of competitive congressional races and lack of interest, turnout could reach a 40-year low. Voters, like the most popular treats in the candy dish, are in short supply and the implications for democracy are frightening, they tell us.
Media reports and public-interest groups will feature dozens of expertsand multiple theories identifying the elusive demon who is the culprit behind this nightmare onMain Street?
Like any good mystery tale, this one has an ironic twist. Mounting evidence suggests the same groups decrying the decay of American democracy also contribute to its decline. It's time for the press and some so-called reformers to acknowledge a growing body of evidence implicating them in the case of sagging suffrage in America.
The first piece of evidence comes from the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. Earlier this year, completing what it called the "most exhaustive study yet on citizen involvement in an election campaign," the center released the results of the "Vanishing Voter Project." The project's results are also included in a new book, called "The Vanishing Voter," by Professor Thomas E. Patterson. Documenting the causes of declining voter participation over the past four decades, the study singles out some surprising suspects the media and weaker political parties.
According to the study, dramatic changes in the way that the media covers campaigns directly contributed to the decline in citizen participation in politics. In less divisive times, campaign "news" was based on candidates' words and actions. In today's journalism, however, reporters interpret the candidates' strategies and motives. For example, in coverage of the 2000 presidential campaign, for every minute the candidates spoke, network correspondents spoke for six minutes a complete reversal of the way the news media used to cover campaigns. "Journalists' rendition of politics is skeptical, negative and strategic, which has contributed to Americans' distrust of politics and politicians," maintains the report.
Cynical media coverage takes its greatest toll among young people. These voters are less likely to vote in the first place. Bombarding them with additional messages about the cynical motives and strategies of politicians turns them off even further.
Other experts support the Harvard study. Political scientist Ann Crigler and her colleagues also highlighted the detrimental effects of cynical news in a paper presented last month at the American Political Science Association meetings. The paper surveys all of the research done on the subject and concludes, "The growing negative tone of news towards candidates and public officials has been blamed for decreasing electoral participation and trust in government. Exposure to increasing cynicism in news may result in decreasing respect for candidates."
The Harvard report points to a second major cause of declining political participation in America weakened political parties. As parties declined, "candidate-centered" campaigns emerged. While initially attracted to this style of politics, "Americans have grown to dislike nearly everything about them," according to the study. Candidate-oriented contests contribute to the belief that politicians are more interested in fighting each other than solving problems, which further lowers trust and participation among ordinary citizens.
Ironically, the main impact of "reforms" such as the McCain-Feingold bill is to undercut the strength and vitality of political parties in America. True reform would aim to strengthen political parties, thereby increasing voter trust and overall participation, not choking off its resources and hampering party-building activities.
Combine these two witches' brews the media's ultra-cynical view of politics and anti-political party reforms and no one should be surprised that the electorate has been spooked. The Washington Post provided a recent example, devoting nearly its full Federal Page to a "look at the inner workings of government." In a complicated graphic that looked like a chart describing the Clinton health-care plan, The Post laid out a breathtakingly cynical view of how a bill becomes a law.
The chart sums up how Washington works as follows: 1. Special-interests groups, money and lobbyists are the only thing that matter in the policy process. 2. Lawmakers have no ideas other than those suggested by lobbyists. In The Post's twisted world, "To gain the ear of Congress, they [special interests] hire well-connected lobbyists and promise large sums of money for campaign coffers."
Wearing a liberal worldview costume might entertain left-wing Halloween partygoers, but it's unfortunate when it masquerades as objective journalism. Sadly, the chart and its cynical conclusions are probably hanging on the bulletin boards of many schools in America, further infecting young people with a negative view of politics and lawmakers.
So next week, when you read various journalistic sleuths and "reformers" trying to scare us about the low rate of voter participation, tell them to take a look in the mirror: The real culprits have been unmasked.

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