Manufacturing a Crisis: The Script
Remember back before the Boston bombings, when we were apparently on the verge of war with big bad…
Manufacturing a Crisis: The Script
Remember back before the Boston bombings, when we were apparently on the verge of war with big bad…
One of the great curses of contemporary journalism today is the pack.
In this case, the notion of a pack refers to the way that once a story is understood to be “important” or “relevant,” everyone in the mediaverse chases it, covers it, photos it, videos it, or presents it to your eyeballs one way or another. Back in ancient times — you know, 10 years ago — this chasing would have been aimed at driving newspaper sales and news broadcast viewings. The intent was to get you to buy a paper (and its associated advertising) or watch a cable or network news broadcast (and its associated advertising).
Now, of course, it’s all about pageviews (and associated advertising). The nature of digital media is such that if one can get one’s page to be the “base” page from which all subsequent coverage of an event draws life, your site can (hopefully) make money and be recognized as “mattering.” (This is why the people who break stories care so much that you link to their page when you reblog something: it drives traffic, and it recognizes the work the people did creating the content. Which is why you should link to the base pages, people!)
There are consequences to this kind of pack journalism, however. One became evident in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown, CT shootings: seemingly every site went viral with the wrong name for the shooter. (The guy’s poor brother saw his name plastered everywhere.) Another is the obsessive focus on what’s trending and what’s hot rather than what might actually matter. (The Daily Show offered an epic takedown of this kind of thinking in relation to investigative journalism that if you haven’t seen, you ought to watch.)
Alas, after several months of Twittering, I’ve concluded that more often than not, Twitter only makes this worse. Any time anything hits, it seems that everyone in the Twitterverse comments, retweets, snarks and otherwise participates in the conversation of the moment. Until the moment something else hits.
It’s like news for squirrels. Or Dug, the dog from “Up.”
There are exceptions to this, of course. Given that the US media have basically shut down their international news bureaus over the last decade or so, Twitter is a great resource when events break overseas. It can be useful in emergencies. But as a source of daily news, Twitter just amplifies the pack.
It’s a no brainer: Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece in the Atlantic: “The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control.”)
It’s epically bad. Mind numbingly bad. Even in the context of the 2012 presidential election, it stands out as quite remarkably astonishingly bad.
It’s filled with “feelings” but no analysis. It relies on the thoughts of advocates for one position or another while dismissing the actual research both on guns and violence and the decline in crime in the US over the last 20 years. And, most strikingly, it doesn’t even touch on the obvious point: what happens when armed civilians miss their “bad guy” targets and kill or wound innocent bystanders? Are we going to give them a pass for their acts of manslaughter? Or send them to jail?
Not a word on that one.
Some Atlantic editor had to buy into this. Shame on them.
So if you figure that the key to getting attention in our media-saturated age is screaming at the tops of our lungs, and you realize that the most-common way to scream these days is to insist that you are “outraged” by something (or you are outraged at the lack of outrage about some outrage-worthy thing), a question:
That is, once the “outrage machine” breaks down, once outrage no longer draws attention (as it will eventually fail just like the “boy who cried wolf” eventually fails), then how will all the screamers draw attention to themselves post-outrage? Quiet murmuring? (Umm, no.)
In other words, what’s more outrageous than outrage? How will we know to pay attention to the “WAR ON CHRISTMAS” if OUTRAGE ABOUT THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS no longer brings us to focus on the faux “news”?
Because don’t kid yourself: it can get worse. And almost certainly will.
What with all the Gaza and Thanksgiving coverage, I can only assume that the whole Syria kerfuffle has been solved.
So we’ve got that going for us.
Is the activist wing of the GOP cynical, or stupid?
See, I have to admit that I’ve been assuming that while the “journalists” at FOX News and their related ilk were peddling political bullshit to their viewers and supporters because peddling nonsense made them rich, the elite activists in the party actually knew what they were peddling was bullshit. It is one thing, after all, to know the emperor has no clothes, and quite another to say it.
Now there has been a burst of analysis that suggests that even the elites drank the Koolaid. Dick Morris claims his “analysis” of the 2012 election was based on his estimate that the electorate in 2012 would be like that in 2004 not 2008 (and hence whiter, maler — more pro-Romney). Karl Rove’s infamous disputation of FOX’s election night call of Ohio for the Democrats fits in this vein as well: it was sincere enough and public enough that I am convinced he actually thought several months’ of polling data was wrong, and his analysis of the likely vote in Ohio was right.
This question—are the elites stupid, too?—is important for the future of the GOP. If the leadership of the GOP drank the Koolaid and actually believed the crap they peddled, then they have a great reckoning to face. If, instead, they are selling the “I was fooled” line to protect their own positions at the top of the party, then the other members of the party need to ask whether having cynical losers willing to say anything to stay in power really is the best idea.
In either case, the question that GOP supporters ought to be asking, “were our leaders stupid or cynical?,” is hardly the most positive one going forward.
So yesterday I had a series of exchanges with a couple of conservatives about how I think the fact that many Republicans are focusing on Benghazi suggests that they think they’re going to lose: they don’t have anything else. You can see those exchanges here and here.
The first of the complaints I received about my comment rested on a series of statements about Watergate that I think I fairly debunked in my response. But it also made a reference to how the media conspired to cover up the Benghazi disaster just like the media covered up Watergate.
Which got me thinking.
First, as I said in my reply, the media didn’t cover up Watergate, it EXPOSED it. Two entrepreneurial Washington Post — a mainstream media source if ever there was one — reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were the first to explore the Watergate break in and cover up in any detail. While their reporting did not bring Nixon down (contrary to popular myth), it was their work that turned Watergate from a minor break in to the scandal that destroyed a President. You can read all about it or see their work depicted in their book All the President’s Men, or the film version with the same name, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.
Likewise, it was media sources that broke the story about Benghazi. And, it should be added, broke it quickly: the Watergate break in (and its associated scandals involving the White House operation known as the “plumbers”) took years to expose.
The notion that it was a “media conspiracy” to protect Nixon and/or Obama is just absurd.
Second, while my respondent insisted that the media protected Nixon, that certainly would have been news to Nixon himself. My respondent claims to remember Watergate and the era (as do I), but seems utterly unaware that Nixon hated the media. Hated it. The Watergate tapes are filled with his loathing, sneering comments about reporters, as well as his efforts to have the FBI and the CIA undermine reporters’ and critics’ credibility. It takes a remarkable mind to imagine Nixon as having been protected by the media. That it took years to expose Watergate was not the result of a media cover up. it was the result of the fact that the President of the United States used his vast powers to enact a multi-layered, Gordian knot of a conspiracy. A conspiratorial knot that took a while and several court cases, including one of my favorites, United States v Nixon, to untangle. (I think it’s amazing that the government can sue the president in this country. Freaking amazing.)
Third, my conspiratorial respondent also forgets the commercial incentive that media sources have to expose government wrongdoing. Most media is for profit in the US, meaning that if you have a story that is going to generate vast attention—and thus sales, web hits, and other revenue-generating actions—you have a commercial incentive to go ahead with the story. The notion that the media actively protects someone they might make profit from exposing runs afoul of simple commercial logic … and the existence of tabloids, the Drudge Report, FOX News and Perez Hilton. (I am trying to figure out how to purge that name from my memory banks, but am failing.)
Fourth, and finally, my conspiracy-minded interlocutor forgets the fact that reporters have a career incentive to break a big story. Bob Woodward, in particular, has made his entire career following up the Watergate story with intimate portraits of policy-making in Washington, DC. Thus, let’s say I “knew” that Barack Obama was really a Kenyan Muslim member of the Communist Party. (Only one of those things bars you from being president by the way, but this is the world, so, whatever.) Why wouldn’t I show what I have? My career would be made, particularly on the right. I could be famous, get invited to all the “in” parties, and probably get rich. And I am going to sit on this, why?
It is easy to see conspiracies. It is almost never worth thinking about them. And while it is true that even paranoids have enemies, it is also the case that some things are true and some things are false. One of the true things is that the press did not protect Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Another is that the press is not protecting Barack Obama on the Benghazi tragedy.
In light of my post yesterday, about Mitt Romney’s campaign slogan, “Believe in America,” a few thoughts on Barack Obama’s famous “Hope” campaign of 2008—itself a successor to Bill Clinton’s 1992 offering themed around the town of his birth, “I still believe in a place called Hope.”
Both Clinton’s 1992 campaign and Obama’s 2008 campaign were brilliant. They were evocative, powerful, and were energized by two of the three most charismatic people to become president in the last 30 years. (Ronald Reagan is the third.) They evoked the mythic America we all want to believe in and made us imagine we could make the dream real.
More, they were tactically effective. As I have noted before, if a candidate can convince lots of different people that the candidate believes what they believe, the candidate can build a winning coalition. And what’s easier to believe in than hope? After all, what’s the alternative? Despair?
The thing is, hope is an empty word. It’s like cotton candy: you may think it tastes good (I don’t like the stuff at all), but as soon as you put it in your mouth it disappears. It has no food value. It’s as insubstantial as foam.
Both 1992 and 2008 offered campaigns that, at least in part, promised a re-invigoration of America garnished with a rhetorical flourish that made lots of Americans believe that hope — Hope — would make America strong. And while both presidents achieved notable things — things like healthcare are substantial achievements — both struggled in their reelections to explain exactly what, if anything they would do with a second term. (Both, it should be noted, also benefited from weak Republican opponents in their reelection campaigns. Clinton had the double advantage of strong third party candidates who pulled votes from the Republican candidate.)
This doesn’t mean that there are no differences between the Obama and Romney campaigns. There are. It just means that, in the end, the terms of Obama’s success in 2008 have framed his struggles in 2012. When you offer “hope,” you are subject to the criticism that hope didn’t translate into tangible outcomes — or that the tangible outcomes that happened weren’t the ones that were expected. (Since, after all, saving the banks and jump starting — albeit slowly — the economy is not exactly the same thing as creating a post-racial politics in a new, post-partisan era.)
So it turns out the 2012 campaign is offering a renewal of hope (Obama) or belief in belief (Romney). One can, I suppose, believe in hope or hope for belief or hope for hope or believe in belief. Whichever one chooses, you’re not being offered the New Deal or anything like that.
But one can always hope.
As the three presidential and one vice presidential debates near, it is a good time to ask, “do the debates matter”? That is, do they shape the outcome of the race?
In general, political scientists have an answer to this: no. There are some exceptions (tbd), but in general, political science research does not find the debates to be particularly important in helping one candidate win—or lose the election, barring some exceptional circumstances.
Regular readers of this blog should not find this conclusion all that surprising. In general, political scientists rarely find that any single event has all that much to do with the outcome of an election. After all, most people come to the voting booth with a raft of assumptions, values and experiences that shape their vote in lots of ways. It would take quite an event to make most Democrats vote for the Republican candidate in most elections … or vice versa. The debates are just another single event in the political universe, and so are usually relegated to the status of “ehhh” in political science analyses of politics.
There are, it is fair to say, exceptions to this rule. The first televised debate, between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, is thought to have solidified Kennedy’s image as a youthful vigorous leader among those who watched it. Nixon, by contrast, was suffering from the flu and refused to wear TV makeup and looked poorly. Similarly, the only 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter is understood to have cemented Reagan’s win by showing Reagan to be a competent, commanding leader while Carter looked hapless. Finally, in 1988, Michael Dukakis’ robotic answer to a vile question about his likely reaction to his own wife’s rape and murder is seen to have encouraged a shift in support from Dukakis to George H.W. Bush … although that shift was already well underway by the time that debate occurred.
More commonly, debates solidify trends already in place. Even if a candidate get knocked back a bit in a debate—as happened in 1984 when Reagan looked confused and elderly in his first debate with Walter Mondale—leaders have time to recover in later debates. Most of the time, the person understood to be leading the race by this time in the election goes on to win it, suggesting that the debates do little to change the outcome. Notably, this is true even in one glaring exception: the election of 2000, in which George Bush was expected to win the popular vote but didn’t. The debates with Al Gore did not change the dynamics of that race appreciably.
So why watch? Well, two reasons really pop to mind. First, while candidates practice hard and work to make sure this doesn’t happen, there could always be a Carter/Dukakis moment when voters’ concerns about a candidate are seemingly confirmed. One can imagine Romney freezing on a human interest/sympathy question, or Obama suddenly admitting he believes in socialism … however unlikely that is.
Second, and really more importantly, in these debates it is at least possible that one or more of the moderators will push the candidate—Romney in particular—to flesh out what are otherwise vague answers. Romney/Ryan claim their tax proposal is revenue neutral, for example, because they will cut deductions to match losses in revenue due to rate cuts. But they have resisted telling us what deductions they would seek to eliminate … probably because the deductions they want to cut are popular ones like the home interest/property tax deductions enjoyed by millions of homeowners in the US. (Politicalprof among them.) Getting Romney to admit this would be an important piece of information for voters, even those who, like Politicalprof, like the home interest/property tax deduction but can understand why it might need to be eliminated in a tax reform plan.
Most of the rest of what you’ll hear about the debates is noise. People will recount the zingers, the one liners and the pithy comments. Tumblr will produce gifs at breakneck speed. The media will fervently declare “winners” and “losers” as they amp up excitement—and their ratings—for the next “clash of the titans” that isn’t. But at the end of the day, little will likely change in the arc of the race.
So do debates “matter”? Let me channel my inner political scientist and agree with my colleagues: “eehhh. maybe. sometimes.”
But I’ll watch any way. And so should you. You just never know.
As we leave the “silly season” of the presidential campaign, we’re about to enter the “leadership” phase. From now until the election, but especially during the soon-upcoming conventions, you’re going to hear endless claims about one candidate or another’s extraordinary ability to “lead” … and, of course, about the other candidate’s profound leadership “failures.”
Here’s the thing, though: what campaigns and supporters mean by “leadership” is almost always utter nonsense.
What campaigns and candidates mean by “leadership” is “heroic leadership.” What they mean is that their candidate, like some movie president, has such remarkable skills that if elected the candidate will make an inspirational speech, engage in some politically heroic action, or otherwise pull off some grand political maneuver that transforms the political system from corruption or chaos and makes society whole again … all while protecting our economy, our natural splendor and our human rights. You can almost hear the movie music rising in the background, can’t you?: vote for me, the promise goes, and I can lead us to the promised land.
People like me look at these promises and either giggle (if we’re feeling in a cheery mood) or despair (since people seem to believe them and then get disappointed when it turns out the promises don’t come true). Why? It’s not hard to explain: heroic leadership bears absolutely no relationship to what presidents actually do or what powers they actually have.
Seriously. Presidents find significant checks and balances on their power. Congress, a body over which presidents usually have very little influence at the best of times, has to sign off on most presidential proposals. The Supreme Court can flout a president’s will. States and local governments can challenge the federal government. Bureaucrats can shape policy to their preferences, not the president’s.
Think of it this way: imagine a president goes to a hostile Congress and gives the single best speech ever given to promote the president’s goal. I’m talking “I Have A Dream” meets “The Gettysburg Address” with a little “St. Crispian’s Day” thrown in for good measure. When that extraordinary speech concludes, what powers does the president have to make Congress do what the president wants that the president didn’t have before the speech? That’s right: not one.
Rather than being heroes, successful presidents tend to be good at the give and take of daily politics. They know how to navigate Congress and appeal to the broader public at the same time. They have great patience and yet are able to move quickly when the time is right. They are, as one of Franklin Roosevelt’s biographers put it, foxes, not lions.
So as you watch the forthcoming “leadership” follies, remember that you are being lied to. No president can be heroic quite like the ones in the movies, and Congress and the rest of the political system almost never reacts to presidential heroism quite the way they do in the movies. Heroic leadership is a great film plot. It’s just not a great way to be a president.
Then again, you should also keep in mind that you are being lied to because you demand that you be lied to. You will be promised a movie president because you insist on movie presidents. You want to believe that one candidate is such a great moral, intellectual and political leader that he —usually he, but that’s another post — can overcome every challenge. And since you want to believe it, campaigns sell it to you … even though they know it’s not true.
But don’t be surprised when real presidents don’t live up to your expectations. Unlike the movies, presidents stay in office after the credits roll.
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