It’s no secret that the press does a lousy job of reporting on presidential campaigns. Not all media outlets, of course, and not all the time. For the most part, though, political coverage is dominated by horse-race analysis, polls, negative gotcha stories, and a paucity of attention to issues that voters might actually care about.
Kevin Bowe wants to do something about it.
A documentary filmmaker who followed the presidential candidates and the press as they trudged back and forth across New Hampshire in 2015 and 2016, he has boiled down his findings in a splendid documentary titled Democracy Through The Looking Glass: Politics and Media in the Post-Truth Era.
The film will be shown at the Regent Theater in Arlington, Mass. on Wednesday evening. I’ll be taking part in a post-screening panel discussion, and I appear briefly in the documentary. Details here.
Bowe, who narrates the film, explains that he wants to explore “the dance between the campaigns and the media,” adding: “What really brought me to New Hampshire was to have a front-row seat and to see if our hopelessly divided country could find some common ground to deal with the challenges facing us. Well, we know that didn’t happen. And now our country is more polarized than ever.”
During his nine months on the ground, Bowe detected four major flaws in the media’s coverage: they completely missed the populist uprising that had taken hold of both major parties in the persons of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders; they focused on the ups and downs of the candidates to the exclusion of people and their problems; they treated actual issues like “show-biz props”; and they ignored real stories in favor of “shiny objects,” like a tattoo artist who was giving away Trump tattoos.
Particularly devastating is a sequence in which we see reporters asking the candidates questions about polls and strategy alternating with voters at town hall events who want to know about substantive matters such as health care and opiod abuse. It’s an indictment of the gulf between the elite press and the public, and it ought to be required viewing for every political reporter.
And yet a certain degree of cynicism regarding how politicians engage with issues is warranted, and Bowe himself is not immune to it. For instance, perhaps his most memorable subject is a New Hampshire resident named Brenda Bouchard, whose husband and elderly mother are both suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. We see Bouchard as she asks candidate after candidate what they plan to do about Alzheimer’s research, especially as the disease becomes more prevalent in an aging society. As Bowe notes, the exchanges humanize the candidates, with even frosty specimens like Ted Cruz talking about how Alzheimer’s has affected their families.
Thanks to a connection through New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Bouchard was put in touch with Hillary Clinton, who goes quite a bit further than the rest — putting together a plan to defeat Alzheimer’s and enlisting Bouchard to introduce Clinton at a rally. So what do we hear from Bowe? “Of course, like any politician, Clinton will say or do anything for votes,” he says. He refers to “her many faults.” Finally, he concedes, “Clinton didn’t have to do this.” No, she didn’t. But she did. And Bowe reacts with the same sort of snark that we might have expected from the journalists he criticizes.
Interspersed with Bowe’s campaign-trail reportage are numerous interviews with journalists such as Bob Schieffer of CBS News, Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory, and GroundTruth Project founder Charles Sennott, as well as academics like my Northeastern colleague Carole Bell, Boston University political scientist Virginia Sapiro, and Melissa Zimdars, a media scholar at Merrimack College.
So what are we going to do about the problems that Bowe identifies? The consensus offered in Democracy Through the Looking Glass is that we need to repair our media and political institutions at the community level. As someone who has written extensively about the importance of journalism in rebuilding civic life, I agree wholeheartedly. But there will be no easy solutions for the larger problems afflicting our democracy, such as income inequality, the rise of “fake news,” and media organizations that, as Sennott tells Bowe, can't provide in-depth coverage because they are struggling merely to survive.
Near the end of the film, Bowe asks Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, to read an excerpt from Mele’s 2013 book “The End of Big,” in which he essentially predicts the rise of a Trump-like leader.
“You know, when I was writing this book, some of my friends who read it said it was too dark, too grim, things weren’t really that bad, our institutions couldn’t possibly be that fragile,” Mele tells Bowe. “And yet here we are.”