Election 2008: Making sense of decision-making

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

In the wake of Super Tuesday, the advice I’m about to offer you regarding the election process is the same as what I would tell you about college — beware of posers.

Since the Kennedy-Nixon debates, broadcast media has played an increasingly influential role in presidential elections. Major news stations run hours of coverage featuring little-known anchors and academic celebrities bickering over the merits of different candidates and the generalized sentiments of vast populations of voters. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these qualified individuals predict a) things we already know or b) things that turn out to be dead wrong.

The results of Super Tuesday weren’t particularly shocking. Hillary and Barack are still neck and neck; McCain dominated on the Republican side, as expected. Meanwhile, did anyone predict that Huckabee would win West Virginia, or that Romney would drop out of the race? What difference would the articulation of those predictions have even made?

Instead of truly trying to call the shots, the so-called “experts” that networks chose to televise hide behind sweeping generalizations that are so vague that they may or may not be true, or even able to be proven. Think about how, nine times out of 10, your horoscope is just general enough to be true — for every single person whose birthday is between July 23 and Aug. 22, for example. Over and over again, we’ve heard how Hillary is carrying the Latino vote, as if all 16 million Latinos in the United States with the right to vote are pulling for Hillary. Personally, I’m waiting to hear who’s supposed to be carrying the white, female vote, so I can figure out who I’m supposed to be voting for when the Pennsylvania primary rolls around on April 22.

Earlier in the election, the media took a more discrete role. Simply by whom they decided to cover, networks were able to influence who stayed in the race and who would be forced to pull out. For example, at a time when polls showed that Ron Paul was supported by 10 percent of the American voter population, he was getting very little media coverage. Though he had strong grassroots support, this did not allow him to broadcast messages to millions of homes throughout the nation. Without media coverage, there was no chance that Paul would be able to stand up to the forces of Clinton or Obama, whose incessant televised appearances have escalated them to mega-celebrity status.

This is the point at which I would tell you to turn off the media, burn an American flag, and think for yourself — but I’m not going to do that. True, just as we’ve been taught not to plagiarize in a paper, we’ve learned never to take someone’s opinion and make it our own. Problem is, an opinion can’t be based on gut feelings alone, or how much you like women or black people. An opinion needs to be informed. And where does one usually get this information? The media.

Like it or not, mass media plays a crucial role in the dissemination of information to the public, no matter how biased, subjective, or just plain wrong it may be. And it’s not just CNN — television shows like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, and the like are all responsible for presenting various political viewpoints for public consumption, even if they are blatantly satirical. For every broadcast, every newspaper, and every blog, there’s a different temperature of the political climate, a different summary of events, a different agenda. News media aren’t presenting these views to tell you to think exactly what they think — they’re putting in your hands what they think is factual, well-reported information in hopes that you’ll consider it as one among many perspectives that shape your individual political viewpoint.

Exactly how one goes about forming his or her own opinion is another matter all together. The first step is to become an active listener. Never absorb a news broadcast and take that station’s views as your own without questioning them or verifying their facts with another source. More sources means more varied viewpoints, which will provide enough ammo for you to be able to truly support your beliefs, whatever they are. And don’t just look at sources you agree with — watch Fox News, even if you hate it; check out candidates’ campaign websites, in which they plug their choices, as well as other outside sources that rip them apart. Beware of so-called “experts” who are running off at the mouth every time you turn on the television, and trust the numbers instead.

Above all, educate yourself and trust what you think. After all, you’re not Anderson Cooper. You’re not Bill O’Reilly. You’re you. News media may play a major part in deciding the outcome of the election, but they can’t cast your vote for you. So don’t let them.