Monday, August 6, 2012

Journalists and Politics

Journalism, as a profession, has a problem. What are journalists supposed to do about the big issues confronting the country?

Some journalists want to be the guardians of the public interest, especially as expressed by getting at the truth. So when it comes to politics, they think it is their job to ignore the smoke coming out of the political parties -- spin, attack ads, what have you -- and report the truth about the candidates and their positions. We might call this the "fact check" school.

Other journalists simply want to advocate for one side or the other, or for some particular pet cause.

But perhaps the dominant strain in journalism coming from the big outlets is what Jay Rosen calls "Savviness." The motto of this school would be, "above all else, be savvy." Or, "above all else, don't be a sucker." These journalists write about politics as a game, or as a naked struggle for power. What got me reading lots of journalist angst this week was this post from the Post's The Fix blog:
Context be damned: Obama’s ‘It worked’ quote should work for Republicans. . . .

For the second time in two weeks, Mitt Romney’s campaign has an out-of-context quote it can use to bludgeon President Obama. First it was “You didn’t build that,” and now it’s two ill-fated words that Obama spoke at a fundraiser Monday: “It worked.”

As with “You didn’t build that,” the Romney campaign’s attacks on “It worked” will be criticized for being out-of-context, lowest-common-denominator politics. And as with “You didn’t build that,” “It worked” is going to … well … work. . . .

Fact-checkers are great (especially our Glenn Kessler), but as long as either side has an argument to justify its attacks, the history of politics dictates that it’s all fair game.

Romney’s team is exploiting that fact — to the credit of its political acumen, if not its strict adherence to accuracy.
This sent a bunch of other journalists into fits, since it seems to epitomize the "savviness" school of reporting.

I can't say that this offended me very much. It may be wrong, in the sense that none of Mitt Romney's ads seem to be helping him very much. But it struck me as very ordinary "horse race" campaign coverage.

No doubt many journalists could be doing more to keep politicians honest, but on the whole I don't think it matters very much. I think one of the great truths ever expressed about politics is, "each nation gets the leaders it deserves." It isn't strictly true, of course, but especially in democracies it is something close to the truth. Americans are shallow and can't be bothered to understand what the government actually does, especially the "independent" voters who actually decide our national elections. We therefore get shallow campaigns that ignore most issues and focus on a few appealing themes.

If the mainstream press did devote more time and space to the truth about the candidates' plans, would it matter? I don't know. I think Americans would be shocked to learn that the Republicans in the House have voted to abolish Medicare as we know it, and passed a budget that calls for eliminating all of the government except for entitlement payments and the defense department. But maybe I am wrong about that. The Republicans have acted over the past 15 years in ways that alarm many people in the mainstream elite, and I think there has been a media tilt against them. The result of that has been an angry rejection of the "lamestream" media among Republicans, and the rise of figures like Sarah Palin whose bread and butter is bashing the press and refusing to engage with it.

There must be a relationship between the anger and denial of reality so prevalent on the populist right, and the machinations of Fox News and their allies. But right wing populism was not created by Fox News, and, I think, no amount of fact checking will make it go away.

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