Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Give Politicians and Pundits the Benefit of the Doubt?

You must be joking.

Seriously, I hear from time to time that our nation's opinion leaders are sincere. That they aren't being deceptive, disingenuous, dishonest, but are merely stating valid opinions that, if you took a step back and thought about them, are a perfectly reasonably approach to an important problem or issue. And no, I don't want to overstate my case - there are some politicians and commentators who attempt exactly that. You may disagree with them some, most, or even all of the time yet still recognize that they're making a sincere contribution to the public discourse.

But most of the time, their voices are drowned out by the cacophony of voices that are more interested in gaining or solidifying their grip on money, power, or access to those with money and power than with making anything approaching an honest contribution to the debate. Sure, with some of them you have to wonder, "is it malice or stupidity", but in most cases it's... well, malice is (usually) too strong a word - malice may be present and directed at their political adversaries or those who dare question their bloviations, but even if their actions and policy proposals could have that effect their goal is not actually to harm the nation. The better word is probably "avarice".

Looking to the political world, we've historically been assured that a lot of the rancor between politicians is a fiction - that behind the scenes they're reasonable, public political foes may be close friends (e.g., Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy), and that what we see in public is largely a dog and pony show for the benefit of the folks back home. Of course there are issues where there are true, deep disputes, but even then we were to believe that politicians were working to bridge divides.

I suspect that was more true in the past, but there is a price to that sort of deception. When you ally yourself with and make public statements pandering to causes you don't believe, use angry, dishonest rhetoric to attack your political opponents, and spend more time thinking about how to ensure yourself a gilded life once your 'service' as an elected official ends than you do thinking about how to do what's best for the nation, the behind-the-scenes comity is going to diminish. We end up with people like Evan Bayh who spend years being part of the problem - then look at the mess they helped to create, declare that their job isn't fun any more, and quit. It sure is easier to quit than it is to grab a broom and clean up, but for some reason the media now loves quitters.

Bayh is correct that we should not glorify the Senate of the past, and this is far from the first time Congress has been dysfunctional. Politicians have been lying to gain votes, influence, wealth and power from the moment somebody dreamed up the election process. The media has at times been even worse in its eagerness to pander to political leaders. But what seems to have largely broken down is the sense that there is an institution that is responsible for its members - the media as an institution, the Senate, the House of Representatives, political parties.... Sure, it's possible to cross one of the few bright lines that can cause you to suffer a career setback or to lose your job, but for the most part a Member of Congress can shoot off her mouth in the most irresponsible of manners while suffering no disadvantage - or, I hate to say it, in order to gain power, publicity, and fame.

We're at a point where a Republican candidate for office can openly admit that his campaign is based upon fear-mongering and irresponsible, inflammatory, and obviously false rhetoric, and not only have the argument be treated as reasonable, but be given column space in a national newspaper to make his case. A rebuke from his party? Don't make me laugh. Acting like a petulant child can make you the toast of your party.

The media loves itself a loose cannon. It's time to get a quote, or have somebody appear on TV to take a position on an issue. Do they want a politician who is going to be nice, respect the opposing position, politely reject false arguments from both sides, and lay out the facts and issues as she truly sees them? Or do they call a politician they know will eagerly dissemble, or one who will reliably make claims about the other side that are ridiculous, inflammatory, often obviously false, but definitely attention-getting and quotable? They'll do the latter and, when challenged as to why they show such disregard for the truth, will hem and haw about not taking stances, "letting the public decide", or about how they're actually providing "news entertainment" or are merely sharing opinions, and that their productions should not be confused with actual news.

And then check out those talking heads on TV - how the various "experts" and politicians dispatched to TV shows, and often the hosts of those shows themselves, start regurgitating a set of talking points or repeating a specific word or phrase to negatively brand an issue or individual. Occasionally you'll see somebody call out the proponents of such a phrase - something that unfortunately is most likely to happen on The Daily Show than on an actual news show - but for the most part even if the host isn't joining in he's reluctant to offend his guest by pointing out to the audience that they're being fed propaganda. (Who would have dared say, for example, "Emperor Kingston, you're wearing no flag pin" - Figuratively or literally?)

Then you have the op/ed contributors from the nation's most prominent newspapers. Again, yes, some write sincere columns about important issues, doing their best to illuminate a problem and to inspire people to move to correct it. And the rest of the media world cries out, "Boring". The columnist who can be counted on to dogmatically advance the position of a political party or special interest group? Even if his only qualification is that he was once among the speechwriting team for Socks the Cat or Barney the Dog? That's interesting - that will get you on TV. And if you put on a good show, whatever the truth happens to be, you'll get invited back.

Yes, sometimes the politician or commentator has a set of preconceived notions that make him a good fit with the special interest group that is willing to pay his exorbitant speaking fees or underwrite an "educational" junket, but the goal is to clap on a set of golden handcuffs. To keep the politician or opinion leader fat and happy so that he never even considers focusing on the 10% of the issues where he differs in opinion from his sponsor, let alone takes a step back to examine his preconceived notions. The system rewards greed and laziness.

How do you even get one of those rare, highly coveted positions? Some national newspapers will claim that they are looking for balance, political left vs. political right, and to a small degree they offer that. But take a specific look at the Washington Post. You'll find that whatever the columnist's claimed political belief, no recent hire for the op-ed page has challenged the core beliefs of Fred Hiatt or his editorial board. War is good, especially in the Middle East, deficits are bad except to pay for war, we need to privatize education and kick unions in the teeth.... Predictable as clockwork. If you are somehow hired but consistently disagree with his board's stances, you can expect to be sent packing.

Over at the Times, let's just say that there's a reason Ross Douthat was hired instead of his Grand New Party co-author Reihan Salam, despite the fact that Salam is a much more interesting thinker. Meanwhile, the columnists who play ball with special interest groups can parlay their positions into lucrative book contracts, speaking engagements, etc., subject to loosey-goosey disclosure rules that are much more about preventing their editors from being embarrassed than they are about ensuring integrity.

Among the pundits who are less interested (for whatever reason) in achieving fame and building up their personal fortunes, there's an unfortunate tendency to avoid stirring the pot - on rare occasion it happens, but for the most part columnists pretend that the errors and misrepresentations of their peers don't exist. When referenced it's usually in as innocuous a manner as possible - "a recent column suggested", rather than directly addressing the errant columnist. Some columnists seem desperate for ideas - coming up with new subjects for biweekly columns can, no doubt, at times be difficult - and become part of the echo chamber, repeating a theme or story that is already in circulation. Some appear to do little more than to paraphrase the latest memo issued by a particular trade group or partisan think tank.

But digging into the issues, analyzing competing arguments and presenting cogent conclusions? For many, if not most, that's too much work. Besides, "their readers are more interested in the horse race", right? What does it matter if one side has superior policy positions, or one side is arguing contrary to established fact - the real story is in which narrative is winning. Besides, it's hard to learn stuff, and even harder to explain it in a succinct, clear manner. So why try? Isn't that somebody else's job?

So yeah - I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, but only if I first get the sense that you're doing your job. If you prefer to be a hack, to lazily play "he said, she said" games rather than study and analyze the facts, cover the horse race instead of the issues, act as a stenographer for a special interest group, or pretend that everybody is honest and acting in good faith (because it's easier than taking on the peers and institutions that provide you with that six to seven figure income) on the other hand....

1 comment:

  1. We saw this in the health care debate, with the White House 'buying off' special interest groups in order to 'free' Congress to craft a bill. Members of Congress were too weak-kneed at the thought of doing what was best for the country as opposed to serving special interests that, but for the effort (sell-out) they would have passed on the opportunity to reform healthcare. And that was after an election - not in the months, or even the year, leading up to an election. And even then the Senate almost dropped the ball. (Yet Harry Reid complains that Obama didn't adequately support him - the same Harry Reid who almost sank the legislation on multiple occasions by letting it founder in committee and by seeking postponement after postponement of a vote.)

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