The Arbitrary Nature of Media Attention

Do you have an opinion about John Boozman? How about Joe Donnelly? Any strong feelings about John Hoeven? Or Jim Risch? I'm guessing that you haven't heard of them, or if you have, you certainly know almost nothing about them. To most Americans they might as well be infielders for a double-A baseball team or Cedar Rapids-area plumbers. In fact, they're United States senators. So why is it that these guys are ignored (perhaps rightfully), while nobody can stop talking about Ted Cruz and Rand Paul? After all, the job of a senator is to make laws, and Paul has no more influence on that process than Boozman. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if no matter how long Rand Paul stays in the U.S. Senate, he never authors a law with any kind of meaningful impact on American lives. He'd hardly be the first; John McCain has been in Congress for over 30 years, and he wrote exactly one important piece of legislation, which eventually got overturned by the Supreme Court.

But the news media (and I'm including myself here) has collectively decided that the things that Paul and Cruz do and say are worth considering. Do a Google News search on "Ted Cruz" and you come up with 67,700 results. "Rand Paul" gets you 28,700 (for comparison, "John Boozman" gets a lonely 506, and "John Hoeven" only 572). Every once in a while it's worth stepping back to note that the decisions that lead to one lawmaker getting that kind of attention are pretty capricious.

Capricious, but not random; in other words, there are reasons, even if the reasons aren't all that reasonable. In Cruz's case his combination of being very smart and a huge jerk has proven particularly compelling. Paul raised his profile by deftly manufacturing some news events during a slow news period. And of course, letting it be known that you're thinking of running for president makes all the reporters in Washington immediately consider you a personage whose ideas and fundraising schedule are worth tracking. Two years ago, Michele Bachmann was on magazine covers; today, though she holds the same job she did then, nobody cares what she's doing or thinking.

It's not completely without an internal logic; if somebody could eventually be president, the more you know about them the better. But Rand Paul and Ted Cruz don't have much more chance of becoming president than Bachmann did. That doesn't mean they might not be interesting characters (Bachmann sure was). But we make the mistake of assuming that all the momentary attention necessarily means there's great substance lying underneath.

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