Imagine that you produce a reality television program. Your cameras film hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours of footage per episode, most of which is extremely dull: cast members brushing their teeth, cooking dinner, reading the newspaper, watching television... the normal everyday activities that fill our lives. True, there will be the occasional kiss, or revelation, or argument, but those interesting bits will be randomly scattered across a sea of inanity.
So how do you create a watchable television show out of that mess? By crafting storylines. Bob's idle comment about his crush on Susie becomes an entire half-hour of unrequited love full of tender music, longing glances and, finally, the devastating moment when Bob sees Susie making out with a stranger and walks home, alone and dejected. Of course, Bob's feelings were real (there is reality in reality television). You just made them fit into a broader story arc: the tender music was added during post-production, the longing glances were mostly aimed at the toaster oven, the make-out scene happened two weeks before the crush comment, and the shot of Bob walking "alone and dejected" was actually him walking to the store to get milk. But that's the job of the producer: to take a small bit of real human drama, process it, and make it into an interesting and compelling story that will attract an audience.
Producing an hour-long news show is very similar: there is a vast pile of mostly boring information that must be filtered in order to create one interesting hour of television, or one eye-catching front page. Just at the federal level, there are more than 400 political offices at stake this election, with both a Republican and a Democrat running for virtually every one of them. Each of those candidates makes at least one public appearance every day (and usually more). In addition, each of those campaigns maintains Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and blogs; they issue daily press reports; and they all have campaign staffs giving their own briefings and interviews.
It amounts to a huge pile of daily information about the election, most of which is about as exciting as watching Snooki floss: long-winded speeches that vary only slightly from day-to-day, predictably bland reactions to the days' other events ("candidate congratulates local sports team on win"), endorsements from someone that most people have never heard of, etc. Scattered amidst the vast dullness is a small number of interesting, possibly newsworthy items which need to be put in some kind of context. So the news media crafts storylines, promoting some newsworthy pieces while virtually ignoring others.
For example, one theme of this election season has been the Republican War on Women. Periodically, one of those Republican candidates (such as Rick Santorum, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, to pick just three of the most prominent examples) will say something monumentally stupid about abortion, rape or some other "women's issue." In each case, the front-page reported the comments -- after all, each comment was controversial and was made by a public figure -- and then the opinion pages began a discussion of the comments, linking them to a larger storyline or "conversation." That created a feedback loop; the existence of a conversation on the opinion pages about the GOP's attitude towards women now means that the next time some otherwise unknown Republican makes a stupid comment, it becomes worthy of national news attention -- and also feeds yet another round of opinion pieces.
Remember that while the news media is in no-way making up this story (they are not forcing Republicans to say stupid things about rape), the national conversation itself is somewhat arbitrary. In other years, when there was no storyline, similar comments have come and gone without starting a national conversation; they became simply matters of local controversy. For instance, in the 1998 Arkansas Senate race when Republican Fay Boozeman allegedly claimed that "God's little shield" protects rape victims from becoming pregnant, that comment did contribute to his loss to Democrat Blanche Lincoln, but it didn't become a national talking point about whether Republicans are anti-women. In the same way, Elizabeth Warren's past claims about her Native American heritage have certainly been controversial in this year's Massachusetts Senate race. But this has had little impact on the national perception of Democrats, because there is no larger election theme of "Democrats lying about their pasts."
For better or worse, the media-created storylines shape the election in the minds of the audience, reminding voters about the context in which the various news stories can be appropriately placed. People in California are therefore given a reason to care about what the Republican Senate candidate from Indiana thinks about abortion in the case of rape, because it plays into a larger narrative about the GOP. Otherwise it would just be some random comment from a far-right Republican in a state that many Californians can't place on a map.
As arbitrary as these storylines are however, they are not usually the result of partisan conspiracy; they come from the demands of the audience. For instance, Romney has had to deal with the accusation that he makes too many gaffes, while Obama has been accused of having no second term agenda. There is some truth in both cases, but once the storyline catches hold truth matters less than perception. Because, fair or not, remember the lesson of reality television: it doesn't matter what actually happened, it matters if what happened makes a good story. Snooki can read as many books she wants, just like Romney can give as many gaffe-free speeches as he wants; none of it makes for great television. It's the "47 percent"-type comments -- the political equivalent to the drunken make-out scene -- that the cameras, and the viewers, are really interested in.
The news media likes to pretend that they are an unbiased filter; that they simply report the stories as the happen, and they hide behind a supposed stark divide between the front page's unvarnished reporting, and the back-page's opinion pieces. The truth, however, is that election coverage ends up having a lot more in common with Jersey Shore than with C-Span.
Danny Oppenheimer is an associate professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management. Mike Edwards is the founding contributor of Leftfielder.org, a blog on politics and media. Both are co-authors of Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well.