Public interest should be in candidates’ ideas, not personas

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

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past six months, you know that the presidential election is fast approaching. And just as the coming election itself has been highly publicized, so have the candidates and their running mates. But how many of us can really say that we know as much about the issues concerning the election as we do the private lives of the people debating them?

In recent years, the media has played a more important role in elections. “Media” no longer only indicates professional newspapers and talk shows, but also MTV coverage and tabloid magazines. At first glance, this seems like an improvement toward involving the youngest voters, 18- to 24-year-olds. For example, MTV has “Rock the Vote,” a program encouraging young adults to vote. Programs like this have the ability to get information out to a demographic that has, in the past, been largely politically uninformed. The current problem, however, is with the type of information that the public seems most interested in receiving.

This is not to say that there aren’t college-age people who are genuinely interested in politics, and are doing their best to get others informed as well. If you take a walk around Oakland or even campus, you’ll most likely be asked if you’re registered to vote at your current address. This publicity is beneficial, as it tries to make it as convenient as possible for notoriously lazy college students to register to vote. However, much of the information that college students have easy access to concerning the election doesn’t come from people stopping them on the street.

With popular celebrity gossip bloggers like Perez Hilton making more political posts, students are free to catch political snippets while catching up on the (admittedly addicting) celebrity gossip. And if the majority of these posts focused on the issues of the election, that’d be great; however, the politics-centered posts tend to follow the trend of the rest of the entries on the website, focusing more on the candidates’ personas instead of their ideas about the country. While it’s important for the public to know if there is something major in a candidate’s past that could affect his or her actions as a future leader, quite often the publicity they receive is for no more than something blown largely out of proportion.

For example, VP hopeful and staunch pro-life supporter Sarah Palin has been getting a lot of media attention due to the “scandal” of her teenage daughter’s pregnancy. She has received a lot of negative backlash once word of the 17-year-old Bristol’s pregnancy got out. While it’s understandable that this story gets a lot of attention, what is confusing is why the pregnancy is viewed as negatively affecting Palin.

First, Palin had little control over Bristol’s pregnancy — she can’t feasibly control all of her daughter’s actions. If anything, by urging her daughter to keep the child, Palin shows that she won’t compromise what she finds important. Palin also generated press attention when she decided to keep her own child (now a few months old) after learning during her pregnancy that he’d be born with Down’s syndrome. While this generated positive press, what’s most interesting is the fact that it was made into such a big story at all. Perhaps I am slightly biased in this respect, as I have a physical disability myself, but I find it hard to believe that Palin deciding to keep a child with a mental disability got so much attention in the news; it’s surprising that a mother’s decision to go through with a pregnancy — regardless of whether she is running for the vice presidency — is of such interest to the public.

It isn’t just Republican candidates that have been the spotlight of the media. One of the largest criticisms that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has faced is that he is the “celebrity candidate,” and that he can’t really relate to middle class citizens. Is it fair, though, to criticize someone as being a celebrity candidate, when the media seems to be doing everything that they can to promote politicians to celebrity status? Is it fair to imply that Obama was agentive in becoming a celebrity?

While it is encouraging to see the candidates reaching out to an expanded audience and gaining more media coverage, one must hope that the public is discerning enough to decide what information is important in helping them make an informed decision, and what is merely gossip and blown out of proportion. While celebrity gossip bloggers like Perez Hilton may run fun sites to get the scoop on all the latest celebrity antics, hopefully people will visit his site, among others, for their celebrity scoop, but will stick to slightly more informed sites to help them make the right decision come November.