Monday, September 22, 2014

Political Journalism's Downward Spiral

Yesterday's New York Times Magazine featured an article by Matt Bai, "How Gary Hart's Downfall Forever Changed American Politics." Now, I probably haven't given a thought to Gary Hart in years - decades actually. But, as Bai reminds us, he was probably the first serious Baby-Boomer presidential contender. If his aspirations foreshadowed the political rise of his generation, his 1987 downfall through personal scandal initiated our contemporary destructive relationship between politics and the media.

Bai contrasts the post-World War II news business, in which "the surest path to success was to gain the trust of politicians and infiltrate their world," with the situation in the 1980s, when "Watergate and television had combined to awaken an entirely new kind of career ambition." For younger, post-Watergate journalists, Bai observes, "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."

The key here, I think, is the "no matter how inconsequential those lies might turn out to be" part. Indeed, I think, the most distinctive characteristic of contemporary political coverage is the almost complete lack of interest in substantive issues and policies and repeated emphasis on often inconsequential personal characteristics and "gaffes" and the faux outrage they produce that substitutes for intelligent debate.

Bai is right in describing the Gary Hart scandal as "the very moment when the walls between the public and private lives of candidates, between politics and celebrity, came tumbling down forever." By the 1990s, Bai argues, "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." This, Bai argues, has driven "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."

No expectation! What a commentary on the political culture modern journalism has helped to create! I well remember the excitement of the Watergate years. But subsequent history has highlighted its terrible, destructive consequences - among them, the legitimation of impeachment as a political tactic and the de-legitimation of the political process, the latter encouraged and exacerbated by our adversarial media.

If politics were merely entertainment (which is essentially what journalists have turned it into and how we now largely tend to treat it), perhaps it might matter less. It would still be emblematic of and contribute to the constant coarsening of our culture. And that would be no small matter. But politics is also and primarily the arena in which we collectively as a national community can address the pressing problems we face. And how well we face up to them - or fail to do so - will determine the quality of our future. And that - in the decades since Watergate and since the taking down of Gary Hart - is what we are increasingly incapable of accomplishing as a society. And that seems to me to be no small matter at all!

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