Dear Philadelphia Media: Stop Calling the Mayoral Race Boring
Yesterday, Citified’s Holly Otterbein was the latest journalist covering this year’s primary to call the race “dull.” This isn’t to pick on Holly. Plenty of other generally stellar journalists have described it as it boring, tedious or some other adjective for tiresome: Chris Brennan did it, John Baer did it, Patrick Kerkstra did it, and I did it, too (kind of).
We all need to stop it, right now.
Voter turnout for this election is expected to be low, maybe historically so. You could blame general voter malaise, or less exciting candidates this go around (what’s a former DA and State Senator compared to two Congressmen?)
You might argue that voters just aren’t too worried right now – Philadelphians are the most optimistic they’ve been in years, and not matter how great he or she is, the next mayor won’t get a hagiography with a name like A Prayer for the City.
Or you could point to demographic shifts: The city has gotten much younger in recent years, and young people have never voted as much as old people (not even when they were getting drafted to Vietnam).
But the media plays a role, too, in voter apathy. Much of this is out of local media’s control – voters won’t care about local elections if they never pick up a local paper, watch the local news, or follow local blogs.
Turnout during presidential and midterm elections has remained relatively steady over the past half century, but turnout in big city races declined steadily, and then went into a free-fall in the 90’s. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fox News, MSNBC, Slate, and the Drudge Report all launched between 1995 and 1997. Cable news and the Internet haven’t destroyed all media, just local media, and as a result you have a Philly electorate that’s more likely to vote for presidential candidates who can’t even eat a cheesesteak than for mayoral candidates who’ll go stoop-to-stoop and subway-to-subway just to meet them.
Sadly, besides drinking heavily, there isn’t much local reporters can do about all that. But they can stop encouraging their remaining audience to stay at home on Election Day by repeatedly calling the race repetitive.
When the press calls a race boring, they’re telling a reader: “Do not pay attention to this.” You don’t have to be Kathleen Hall Jamieson to get how jaded press perceptions can rub potential voters the wrong way, causing them to stop paying attention entirely.
If someone calls a movie boring, do you watch it? Unless you’re into opaque art films and that person is wearing an Ed Hardy t-shirt, probably not.
And you definitely don’t see the movie if that person is a professional movie critic whose opinion you respect. Journos like Kerkstra, Otterbein, Baer and Brennan are the Roger Eberts and Gene Siskels of Philly politics, and they keep giving this race big, fat thumbs down. (I’m more like Philly’s Jay Sherman).
Now, I can’t really blame my far more illustrious colleagues for finding the race a tad tiresome at this point. After 70 forums and 4 debates, it is fucking boring to anyone unlucky to suffer through all that.
Even if each campaign event were actually exhilarating, they’d collectively start to feel stale by now. Sure, you can binge watch House of Cards, but can you imagine watching 74 episodes in the row? Now, imagine replacing 74 episodes full of sex, murder and the Underwoods with 74 forums full of tax, zoning and the unions.
And the candidates have largely stuck to their talking points, long ago set out and no longer new to reporters. But those insipid sound bites would still be news to many voters who are more casual consumers of the media than the professional media itself.
Still, as journalists, we should hold ourselves to higher standards and fight the urge to uncritically let our own boredom infect our writing. If fact, we should be striving to tell these old stories in new ways.
That, of course, is way easier said than done (or else I would have done it by now). But avoiding lazy, deleterious adjectives like “unexciting” and “dull” is pretty easy too. And maybe something as simple as tossing in an occasional “stirring” or a “sensational” could help convince the public that this race isn’t terrible to watch, or at least less terrible than watching the Phillies right now.
So, please, in what little time that’s left, lets try to drum up a little enthusiasm for this race. At the very least, let’s ban “boring.”
Besides, can any race with Milton Street ever really be all that dull?