How the media contribute to political, governmental dysfunction

Meant to mention that I liked the point (in boldface) made in this piece in the WSJ yesterday, headlined “Obama Is No Lame Duck“:

There are more than 1,000 days until the 2016 elections, about as long as the entire Kennedy administration. But you’d never guess it from today’s political discourse. How badly will Bridgegate damage Chris Christie’s race for the Republican presidential nomination? Will Republican opposition research undermine the narrative of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton‘s forthcoming memoirs? These are the “issues” that dominate the conversation.

A lengthy new profile of President Obama in the New Yorker feeds this tendency by adopting a distinctly elegiac tone. As New Yorker editor David Remnick puts it, “Obama has three years left, but it’s not difficult to sense a politician with an acute sense of time, a politician devising ways to widen his legacy without the benefit of any support from Congress. . . . And so there is in him a certain degree of reduced ambition, a sense that even well before the commentariat starts calling him a lame duck he will spend much of his time setting an agenda that can be resolved only after he has retired to the life of a writer and post-President.”

Call me naïve and old-fashioned, but I object to this entire way of thinking. Policy debates may bore the press, but that’s no excuse for defaulting to horse-race coverage. Only journalistic complicity can allow the permanent campaign to drive out concern for governance. For their part, elected officials should understand that they cannot afford to leave the world’s greatest democracy on autopilot for the next three years. When it comes to advancing a national agenda, surely there’s a midpoint between grandiosity and resignation….

Yep, that’s what the media do — and have long done. And the press are almost as guilty as the broadcast people.

News people tend to treat politics like sports, because it’s simple — it fits into the idiotic binary view of the world, where there are only two teams and two choices, such as winners and losers — and because it’s easy, and fun. You don’t have to think very hard about who’s going to win the next election. So you write about that and write about it and build up this pitch of excitement like the buildup to the big game, and then you cover the election, and extensively cover the aftermath of the election.

And then, you start writing about the next election. And everything that happens, from events to scandals to policy debates, are couched in terms of how they will affect candidate’s chances in the next election. (James Fallows wrote an excellent book on this subject back in the early ’90s, called Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. I reviewed it at the time. Nothing has gotten better since he wrote it.books

And so we get this foolishness of treating a president as a lame duck from the moment he wins a second term, because hey, he has no election coming up — which means all too many reporters just can’t come up with a reason to be interested in what he does. If it doesn’t have an impact on his electoral chances, it has no meaning to them. Oh, they’ll try to work up enthusiasm about the unrelated subject of how his party will do in the next election, but their simple little hearts just aren’t really into it.

(I say “unrelated” because it’s unrelated, and decidedly uninteresting, to me. But in their simplistic, dichotomous worldview, one member of a party’s fate has tremendous meaning to other members of that party, because there are only two kinds of people in the world, rather than six billion kinds, and only two ways of thinking.)

Anyway, this is the media’s big contribution to the sickness in our political system, and the dysfunction of our government. By taking this either-or, column A or column B, approach (when in reality there are thousands, millions, an infinity of possibilities in each policy question), they make it difficult for Americans to frame political questions in any way other than hyperpartisan terms.

10 thoughts on “How the media contribute to political, governmental dysfunction

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, especially when the potentialities are about something like a ball game or an election result — everybody engages in predictions, and is very forgiving of everyone else’s fallibility, and promptly forgets the inaccuracy of predictions the day after the election. Or ball game…

      But when the “game” is over, you know who won. That’s not a matter of opinion. Which is why so much attention is focused on an election — it’s such an easily reportable thing…

      Reply
  1. bud

    Brad I agree in principle but the horse race stuff is so much fun. How can you resist the intrigue and drama? Will Christie be too sullied to carry on? Will Hillary’s past come back to haunt her? Is the nation ready for a Hispanic (Rubio), Canadian (Cruz) or, heaven forbid, a libertarian (Paul)? This is reality TV at it’s best (or worst depending on your perspective or mood). I say let’s kick back and enjoy it. Grumbling will only make it worse.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen

      But Bud, surely you must object to the president being regarded as a lame duck from the moment he’s re-elected? We need to focus on the policies of today more than obsessing about 2016…

      Reply
      1. Doug Ross

        He’s considered a lame duck mostly because of his performance over the last year and his declining popularity ratings. The Obamacare rollout has been a disaster that will linger through the 2014 elections and possibly result in him facing a Republican Senate AND House for the last two years of his term. Obama has no political capital at this point to use to try and influence policy.

        Reply
        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Those are good points, and yep, he’s politically weakened. Which perhaps makes the present situation a bad example, because there’s that complicating, or perhaps I should say, aggravating circumstances. But there is an underlying tendency to want to move on to the next election. So much of the analysis of the president’s political standing is pitched toward the next congressional election…

          Reply
  2. Bart

    Ever consider the fact that the popular belief is that the media is liberal and by labeling Obama as a lame duck at this point and continuing to enhance Hillary’s chances for winning in 2016, the media does understand what they are doing?

    I know, I know, it sounds like a tin foil hat conspiracy theory but since Obama has been in office, he has bested the Teflon Man image beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. Nothing has stuck to Obama, not even the ACA roll out fiasco. Trying to find any liberal media outlet willing to make a critical remark about Obama before now is almost impossible, difficult at best.

    When the largest liberal Super Pac has endorsed Hillary and the game has already started, there is no logical reason to continue to elevate Obama over Hillary at this point because it will take more than a year to reshape her image with the public, especially Benghazi and her infamous comment, “what does it matter at this point anyway?”. And yes, it does resonate better than liberals want to admit and the debate is still very much in the public eye.

    The real tragedy is that even with all of her baggage; Hillary presents a better face than any of the Republican potentials do at this point in the process.

    Reply
    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Nobody who is likely to vote for Hillary thinks the Benghazi “scandal” is more than hype by the right wing.

      Reply
      1. Bart

        “what does it matter at this point anyway?”

        “Nobody who is likely to vote for Hillary thinks the Benghazi “scandal” is more than hype by the right wing.”

        Point made. A plurality of 46% of likely voters polled in late January this year think it will hurt, up from 43% a few weeks ago. Naturally polls taken in January 2014 can have drastic swings between now and election day in 2016.

        Reply

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