Saturday, September 20, 2014

Can our Politics Survive Tabloid Journalism?

Mat Bai was the chief political correspondent for New York Time Magazine, he has covered three presidential campaigns, and has written for the Times, and is currently the national political columnist at Yahoo News.  He has a new book coming out in October:  "All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid."  He is previewing the book in an interesting essay this weekend in the New York Times Magazine. 

The essay is about the implosion of the Gary Hart presidential campaign in 1987 over some hanky-panky with a bikini model, Donna Rice.

Pretty tame compared to the Clinton-Lewinsky-cigar allegations, but made out of the same stuff.  Just as Congress and the national press corps dropped everything for two years to pursue the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal full time, Gary Hart was hounded out of the campaign by a pack of Papparazzi.

The article raises interesting questions about the nature of how our media covers politics, and problems this causes.

For purposes of thinking about this, let's take as true Bai's characterization of Hart as a "brilliant and serious man", "the most visionary political mind of his generation," who, had he been elected,  would have affected the course of history for the better, but who also engaged in some adulterous hanky-panky.

What has changed in our coverage of politics?

Bai argues that for decades prior to Watergate, ...
the surest path to success (for journalists) was to gain the trust of politicians and infiltrate their world. Proximity to power and the information and insight derived from having it was the currency of the trade. By the 1980s, however, Watergate and television had combined to awaken an entirely new kind of career ambition. If you were an aspiring journalist born in the 1950s, when the baby boom was in full swing, then you entered the business at almost exactly the moment when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post — portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the cinematic version of their first book, “All the President’s Men” — were becoming not just the most celebrated reporters of their day but very likely the wealthiest and most famous journalists in American history (with the possible exception of Walter Cronkite). And what made Woodward and Bernstein so iconic wasn’t proximity, but scandal. They had actually managed to take down a mendacious American president, and in doing so they came to symbolize the hope and heroism of a new generation.
Journalism has shifted, says Bai, from gaining the trust of politicians, to gaining wealth and fame by exposing scandal. Instead of seeking understanding and insight, journalists are now seeking to score points.
If you were one of the new breed of middle-class, Ivy League-educated baby boomers who had decided to change the world through journalism, then there was simply no one you could want to become more than Woodward or Bernstein, which is to say, there was no greater calling than to expose the lies of a politician, no matter how inconsequential those lies might turn out to be or in how dark a place they might be lurking. .... 
If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else. By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would be: “We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.” 
As an industry, we aspired chiefly to show politicians for the impossibly flawed human beings they are: a single-minded pursuit that reduced complex careers to isolated transgressions. As the former senator Bob Kerrey, who has acknowledged participating in an atrocity as a soldier in Vietnam, told me once, “We’re not the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives, and there’s a tendency to think that we are.” That quote, I thought, should have been posted on the wall of every newsroom in the country, just to remind us that it was true.
As a result Politicians were forced into a defensive crouch.  Journalists were no longer on the inside. Journalists lost access and journalism suffered.  At the same time politicians revealed less, and our politics suffered.
Predictably, politicians responded to all this with a determination to give us nothing that might aid in the hunt to expose them, even if it meant obscuring the convictions and contradictions that made them actual human beings. Each side retreated to its respective camp, where they strategized about how to outwit and outflank the other, occasionally to their own benefit but rarely to the voters’. Maybe this made our media a sharper guardian of the public interest against liars and hypocrites. But it also made it hard for any thoughtful politician to offer arguments that might be considered nuanced or controversial. It drove a lot of potential candidates with complex ideas away from the process, and it made it easier for a lot of candidates who knew nothing about policy to breeze into national office, because there was no expectation that a candidate was going to say anything of substance anyway. 
Changes in technology have made this problem much worse. The internet, smart phones, surveillance performed by businesses, the government, and private individuals alike provides a vast amount of opportunity to uncover unflattering or embarrassing material on even the most saintly among us.  If the goal is to dig up dirt that can be used to embarrass a politician, and campaigns have whole "opposition research" teams dedicated to this task, there are none who will stand pure at the end of the day. It's no wonder cynicism is running amok.

It is doubtful that our politics are better off for this. How can we combat this? Telling politicians to lead exemplary lives misses the point.  Of course they should lead exemplary lives. We all should; but the point is that no one's life will stand up to the full scrutiny of a motivated press corps, opposing campaigns, and the full resources of modern technology applied to uncover dirt.

Surely the answer must lie in a way to separate the wheat from the chaff.  We need to be able to distinguish between sexual hanky-panky and lying pretexts to go to war. Is there an App for that?

No comments:

Post a Comment