Documentary on N.H. Primary Takes on Media and Its Consumers

Apr 28, 2017

A new documentary takes a look at how local and national media organizations covered candidates during last year’s first-in-the-nation primary. "In Democracy Through the Looking Glass: Media & Politics in the Post-Truth Era," Director Kevin Bowe critically examines both the media and those who consume it inside their social media echo chambers. The film premieres Friday, April 28 in Concord at Red River Theatres. Kevin Bowe spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

Why did you want to make this film?

Well, I guess the real question is: why did I want to go to New Hampshire and follow the New Hampshire Primary for nine months? Then I fell into making the film. I think like a lot of Americans who are politically aware/active, I feel that there’s too much polarization. There’s too much people not understanding each other. The body politic, I felt, was not healthy. And so I wanted to go up to New Hampshire to take a temperature of what that would be like. And it just morphed.

You focused on a few things that the media did not, in your view, do correctly. Can you tell us about some of those?

Well, sure. I think the biggest thing is that—and again, I just want to back up. This is not an examination of individual media outlets or individual reporters, but rather, really the systemic or systematic media environment. And I think one of the more enlightening things is that there’s a disconnect between what media reporters are asking questions about and what the voters are asking questions about. Clearly the media—you can go to one of these campaign events and talk to a reporter and talk to a voter and they will have completely different versions of what happened.

The media tends to look at the strategy, the horse race, where the voters are asking questions about problems that affect their lives. I think that that disconnect translates to a lot of distrust or a lot of alienation that people have with the media, because they’re not covering stories that they feel are important.

Increasingly it seems that the media no longer writes stories about people and problems. They write stories about the optics of the campaign. And I think that that is a big problem in our discourse right now.

I actually have a clip from your movie. You put together alternating clips of questions of people who attended campaign rallies and also questions from the media. So let’s listen to that part of the movie. 

Those were alternating questions from people at campaign rallies asking a variety of questions to people like Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders, for example. And then there were people from the media asking relatively silly questions. Do you think these questions are representative of what really happened on the ground?

Obviously, I didn’t have the evidence to say it was representative. I walked away with the impression that, you know, 10 percent of these questions asked at press conferences were really of substance. So that’s why I had a lot of glee—that’s why I was happy to see that Harvard issued a study that basically confirmed a lot of the intuition that I had. That study basically said that the mainstream media coverage devoted about 10 percent of coverage to issues of substance and the other 90 percent to issues of strategy and horse race. So the study confirmed my impression.

I don’t want people to say that I’m making these charges that the media doesn’t cover issues in a great way. I’ll just point to this Harvard study.

I looked at the Harvard study, and it divided the kinds of coverage in different ways. One of the ways that was not included in that 10 or 11 percent that you mention was coverage, for example, of debates, which would ostensibly cover campaign issues, things that these voters were talking about that.

Could I disagree with you on that?

You may, but the fact of the matter is that that was a different category in the study that you cite. Another category was fundraising, which I would argue a lot of voters do care about because voters want to know where the money going to these candidates is coming from.

Oh, I couldn’t agree more. And you know, couple of points. You know, we can’t look at individual debates and—at least we haven’t looked at individual debates and measured what kind of questions were asked. But one thing that that jumps out in the last Clinton/Trump debate is, for instance, no questions during the debate about global warming. I think there was, even in the debates, there was a lot of strategy questions, a lot of questions about character, which is good.

Which was counted in the 10 percent that you mentioned in the Harvard study as a good thing.

Yes, absolutely. But I think even in the debate questions there was a void of substance.

There’s another moment when you call out the local press about being what you call “obsessed” about the New Hampshire Primary’s status as first in the nation.

So that was a story that did come up during the presidential primary, the election cycle, about whether or not New Hampshire’s primary deserved to have this place as first in the nation. Why not have local media discuss this question? Especially if it was presented higher up in the Republican Party?

It’s clearly a legitimate issue, and it’s clearly an issue the press should be asking about. And again, just to back up a little bit, when I talk about the local press, the critique that I’m giving for the New Hampshire press would have been true if the primary were in Delaware, or in Iowa. It’s more of a local press critique as opposed to anything individual.

However, again, we didn’t hear those questions from the voters. Now we know that the voters care about keeping New Hampshire first, and it’s a legitimate question, but I just felt it dominated the limited time that reporters have to ask questions. That’s the important thing.

I was embedded with the press and I felt privileged to have a chance to ask presidential candidates questions and I just felt that I wanted to make the best of it. Not to say that it’s not a legitimate issue, not to say that strategy and horse race are not legitimate stories. I just felt that, in total, the cumulative effect was an inordinate amount of superficial questions and not enough questions that put candidates on the record.

Do you believe that local news organizations made the decision to cover that because of advertising revenue?

I think that the local media capitalizes on—let me just back up. I do believe there is a separate wall between editorial and business. However, the truth is that there are business decisions made to make sure that they capture as much advertising dollars as possible. It’s how the system works. You know, it’s tough to be critical or to imply, you know, nefarious motives when that’s how the system works. You know, you just can’t avoid it.

Did you happen to place any calls to local media organizations to discuss how they decided to make whatever coverage decisions they made?

No, I did not.

You turned some of the blame, too, on consumers of media. I think it was Andrew Smith at UNH that you interviewed who said, “We’ve seen the enemy, and he is us.” What did you think he meant by that?

Well, I’m going to back up and say that this is not a movie blaming the media. This is not a movie blaming the media or conservatives or liberals. This is a movie about us as people and citizens and our responsibility and I think that the individual behaviors, my behaviors, our collective behavior, defines how our media works, defines our politicians.

So you know, if you believe that the individual is empowered to make decisions, then we have to take responsibility for what we have, and you know, we’re the consumers of this media. We allow our politicians to say and do what they do, so at the end of the day, it’s our obligation and I’m not sure if I answered that question right or at least the way you wanted it, but that’s where I’m coming from.

To say that we have met the enemy and it is us, again, is trying to shine the light of who’s really responsible for our political system.