Thursday, February 18, 2010

Politics has a reality apart from perception that reporters often ignore

So much political reportage from American reporters is devoid of content that matters. After each Presidential debate every four years or the annual State of the Union Speech or some such public event many reporters for the nation’s newspapers and television news programs will pick apart a politician’s performance and the public’s perception of that performance but almost always as an afterthought (if at all) review the policies being proposed or opposed. It’s all about winners and losers in the game of perception but with nothing more than Monopoly money at stake. It’s as if nothing of consequence will impact upon the lives of Americans one way or the other.

George Packer looks at his profession:
David Broder had a devastatingly unremarkable assessment of Sarah Palin in the Post the other day. Her speech at the Tea Party convention in Nashville “showed off a public figure at the top of her game—a politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself.” She used the televised occasion to “display the full repertoire she possesses.” Palin is not only “the most visible Republican in the land,” she has also “locked herself firmly in the populist embrace” and mastered “a pitch-perfect recital of the populist message that has worked in campaigns past.” Broder’s conclusion: “The lady is good.”

Broder wasn’t analyzing Palin’s positions or accusations, or the truth or falsehood of her claims, or even the nature of the emotions that she appeals to. He was reviewing a performance and giving it the thumbs up, using the familiar terminology of political journalism. This has been so characteristic of the coverage of politics for so long that it doesn’t seem in the least bit odd, and it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way. A couple of weeks ago, the Times ran a piece by its lead political reporter, Adam Nagourney, about a Republican strategy session in Hawaii: “Here in Honolulu, the strains within the party over conservative principles versus political pragmatism played out in a sharp and public way, especially as the party establishment struggled to deal with the demands of the Tea Party movement.” The structure of the sentence, and of the article, puts the emphasis entirely on tactics and performance. This kind of prose goes down as easily and unnoticeably as a glass of sparkling water, with no aftertaste. Readers interested in politics drink quarts of it every day without gaining weight. And Broder and Nagourney are at the top of their game.

It would be strange if the Times’s coverage of the financial crisis, which has been stellar, focussed entirely on things like Richard Fuld’s handling of his P.R. problems while Lehman was going down. And it would be strange if the paper’s coverage of Afghanistan, which has also been stellar, focussed entirely on things like Hamid Karzai’s use of traditional Pashtun rhetoric in his effort to ride the wave of public anger at the Americans. Imagine Karzai’s recent inaugural address as covered by a Washington journalist:

“Speaking at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Karzai showed himself to be at the top of his game. He skillfully co-opted his Pashtun base while making a powerful appeal to the technocrats who have lately been disappointed in him, and at the same time he reassured the Afghan public that his patience with civilian casualties is wearing thin. A palace insider, who asked for anonymity in order to be able to speak candidly, said, ‘If Karzai can continue to signal the West that he is concerned about corruption without alienating his warlord allies, he will likely be able to defuse the perception of a weak leader and regain his image as a unifying figure who can play the role of both modernizer and nationalist.’ Still, the palace insider acknowledged, tensions remain within Mr. Karzai’s own inner circle. At one point during the swearing-in ceremony, observers noted that Mohammad Hanif Atmar, his interior minister, seemed to ignore the greeting of Amrullah Saleh, the intelligence chief. The two have been rumored to be at odds ever since last year’s controversial election. A palace spokesman, speaking on background, denied that the incident had any significance. ‘The sun was in Hanif’s eyes—that’s it,’ the spokesman said.”

A war or an economic collapse has a reality apart from perceptions, which imposes a pressure on reporters to find it. But for some reason, American political coverage is exempt. It hasn’t always been true. Back in 1993, the late Michael Kelly, who was then a Times Washington reporter, wrote a brilliant Times Magazine piece called “David Gergen, Master of the Game.” It was about the culture of American politics, including those who write about it: “the story of how the idea of image became the faith in Washington.” According to Kelly (and to Gergen), it happened early in the Reagan Presidency. Kelly included a paragraph so damning that I still remember it almost two decades later: “A New York Times article in February reports that the President’s advisers are worried about ‘the perception thus wrought’ by his rocky beginning, and says the Administration is working ‘to refocus its image as a Government of broad, middle-class interests.’ A Times report in May finds ‘a perception that the President,’ who won office as a political centrist, ‘has come to look very much like the same old—liberal—thing.’ These bits of fatuousness are unexceptional in contemporary Washington journalism; they stand out in my mind only because I wrote them myself.”

It’s hard to imagine Kelly’s piece being published today—its scathing critique would seem quaint, if not mystifying. Anyone covering Washington, not excluding me, will sooner or later turn to a phrase like “refocus its image” or “a perception that the President has come to look” or “a pitch-perfect recital of the populist message,” because they come so easily, and because they make it unnecessary to say anything substantial, which means thinking hard and perhaps suffering the consequences. Still, as an exercise in accountability, political journalists should ask themselves from time to time: Would I write this about a war, or a depression? In the same vein, a government official once told me that the best way to cover Washington is as a foreign capital—as Baghdad, or Kabul.

1 comment:

Sisyphus said...

Sadly, I think that most of the public VOTES based on a politician's acting ability, appearance, and plain ol' charisma.