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Political Animal

The Next Phase

By Brian Morton | Posted 1/9/2008

By this time next month, the primary election season will be all but over, and we will know who's going to be battling it out in November. And I, for one, am partially looking upon this time with dread.

After the 2000 elections and the way they were covered by the mainstream press, it has been scary to watch as politics has been turned more into high-school drama criticism than a debate about policy and substance. In 15 years it has deteriorated from "boxers or briefs" to "whom would you rather drink a beer with," and I shudder to think how big-time political prognosticators will devalue the hard decisions necessary to determine who will pull our country out of the moral and international quagmire in which we find ourselves.

Sometimes it's fairly easy to see it coming. Despite John McCain's fourth-place finish in Iowa, media pundits were climbing all over his bandwagon. (Check for yourself--see how many times you hear the words "straight talk" come out of a TV host's mouth when McCain is mentioned.)

Usually the canary in this particular coal mine is Maureen Dowd of The New York Times. Dowd specializes in giving candidates cute nicknames--it's a style she honed to a fine sheen after winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for savaging the Clintons leading up to and all the way through the Lewinsky scandal. For the last seven years she's been writing about Rummy and Condi and Dick and W as if they shared fifth-period English with her.

The problem with this junk is that it takes up space that could be used for real information, and it turns it into a primary among what blogger Bob Somerby calls "the kool kids." We saw this in action both in 2000 and '04: The visceral dislike of Al Gore by the traveling press has been well-documented, and the general disdain they had for John Kerry trumped his besting George W. Bush in all three debates. So by the time daylight-saving time rolls around in March, we should start seeing the "dramatic narrative" that each party will try and frame the opponent with come the fall.

Why do reporters help create these "dramatic narratives"? The easiest reason is that they make it simpler to tell a story, despite the fact that the narratives often conflict with what is actually happening. In his Jan. 5 blog entry "Why Campaign Coverage so Often Sucks," The Nation's Chris Hayes explains how pack journalism occurs:

Veteran reporters are just as panicked about getting lost or missing something, just as confused about who to talk to. This why reporters move in packs. It's like the first week of freshman orientation, when you hopped around to parties in groups of three dozen, because no one wanted to miss something or knew where anything was.

Then there's always the fact that when you go to one of these events as a reporter, there's part of you that's aware that you don't really belong there. You're an outsider, standing on the edges observing the people who are there doing the actually stuff of politics: listening to a candidate, cheering, participating. So reporters run with that distance: they crack wise, they kibbitz in the back, they play up their detachment. That leads to coverage that is often weirdly condescending and removed from the experience of politics.

The unfortunate part about pack journalism is that the campaigns will reinforce against their opponents whatever negative images are created out of the narrative, no matter how much they diverge from reality. By the end of the 2000 election season, Gore was morphed into some serial liar featured in Love Story when he wasn't imperiously inventing the internet. In '04, Bush's handlers contrived to surround him only with swooning sycophants, making him look like a regular guy who happens to be president. The contrast didn't favor Kerry, who treated the press the way ordinary candidates do, and suffered as a result.

This year's campaign media haven't been helpful to Hillary Clinton--adjectives applied to her almost always conform to stereotypes that demean women. If she tries to appear compassionate, someone describes her as "soft." If she appears angry, she is described as "shrill." And every move she makes is contorted to fit the dramatic construct that she is "calculating," the same way that everything Kerry did or said made him a "flip-flopper," or Gore a "phony."

One of the good things to come out of the internet and blogging is the democratization of political reporting. Part of the problem of the campaign narrative has been its exclusivity--it has always been generated by a handful of reporters eating, riding, and flying together. With bloggers and video cameras and cell phones, the process is opening up in ways campaigns never were in the past. If we're lucky, voters this fall will see the "narratives" and know them for what they are, and we can move past the drama criticism from pundits living in the past.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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