Nihilistic Poll Brained Celebration of Nothingness
A short discussion of why most political media coverage is bad.
Election season is here, a time when Americans renew their civic participation in democracy by watching a series of televised debates between the nation’s boldest liars, which are then dissected by pundits with all of the snappy graphics—though not the critical faculties—of NFL play-by-play commentators. The portion of the general public that actually cares about issues has, I think, a strong but vague feeling that the media does not do a good job covering politics. They are correct. Talk to ten million people, though, and they will give you ten million explanations for this, many of which are (I’m sorry) goofy ill-conceived conspiracy theories. I will tell you what the actual problem is, just so you know.
First, a note: Talking about “the media” is like talking about “restaurants” without specifying whether you’re talking about McDonald’s or Per Se. The average person will often conflate everything from The New York Times to Some Random Dude’s Twitter Post to concoct their vision of “what the media is saying.” What I am going to discuss here is what is inexactly called “the mainstream media,” which could more accurately be called “That portion of the media that thinks of itself as the mainstream media— that believes that it occupies the center and can be used as a marker by which all other media outlets are measured.” This part of the media—the network news operations, CNN, the major newspapers—do, as a group, produce the dominant narrative that much of the rest of the media uses as a baseline to agree or disagree with. Largely because this part of the media has the most financial resources and access to power centers and produces the most journalism. The narrative-setting power of this part of the media is what makes it important to everyone, whether you watch the nightly news and read the Washington Post or not.
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The single biggest problem with the way that this dominant media class covers politics is that they have voluntarily abandoned the idea that their job is to think critically about the substance of politics—the policies and their consequences in the world. Instead, they take it as their mission to focus on the form of politics—the personalities, the teams, the parties, the horse race. The most recent reason for this is that they have been cowed away from the more important part of politics and into the less important part of politics by a very successful decades-long campaign by the right to paint the media as biased. The longer term reason and more structural reason for this is that the position of the mainstream media itself as an institution within the American power structure exerts an unspoken but universally understood force that sets boundaries on the range of the editorial product, so that it never strays too far from its peers. Both of these mechanisms serve to make the idea of turning coverage of politics into a critical discussion of morality—the most worthwhile thing to talk about—one that is dismissed out of hand as radioactive.
There is a long-running and tedious argument in journalism circles about whether the concept of “objectivity” is a real and necessary thing, or whether it is a fake thing that is used as an excuse to not fulfill what should be journalism’s primary function of telling the truth without fear or favor. I and a million other people have written about this for years and please Google all that if you’re interested because I’m not going to rehash it all here. (The answer is the second one.) The important thing to understand is that the establishment media’s decision to make the contest of politics the primary focus of its coverage is its way of avoiding the pitfalls of covering the substance of politics altogether. The institutional response to cries of “bias” from the right (which are strategic) and to the cultural pressure to stay within the bounds of the peer group’s framing of the issues has been to just take the off ramp away from the hard but useful version of political writing, and towards the easy, empty version of politics as entertainment.
I don’t want this to sound too abstract. Turn on Sunday network political talk shows. A couple of weeks ago, after the first Republican debate, I watched as Chris Christie made the rounds, being grilled about how his debate performance would position him in the polls going forward. None of his (bad) policy proposals were discussed. Then I watched as Bernie Sanders made the rounds, being grilled about whether his friend Cornel West’s third party candidacy would hurt Biden in the polls. None of Bernie’s (good) policies were discussed. The hosts pressured Christie to say bad things about Trump, and they pressured Bernie to say bad things about West. They knew that if they could get those specific words out of those people’s mouths, they would create “news.” The “news” would be: Person X Slams Person Y. This version of news fits comfortably within the framework of politics-as-sports. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s strong? Who’s weak? Who are the allies, and who are the enemies? It is indistinguishable from watching a bunch of ESPN commentators covering a trash-talk-filled football game. Here’s the score! Here’s the strategy! Here’s the hit! Wowow!
This is not journalism. The fact that it is not journalism makes the whole thing much easier on the media outlets. Journalism would require talking about the policies that these political figures are trying to push and how those policies might affect the world, rather than relegating policies to a minor supporting role in which their only value is their effect on the polls. But applying critical journalistic scrutiny to political policies would open these media outlets up to a whole lot of hassle. They would be criticized for taking a side. They would displease public figures who grant them access that they depend on. And they might bore viewers, who have been taught for years that the excitement of politics derives from the soap opera and the scorekeeping. Why would they go through all of that headache, when they could just talk about polls?
Entertainment is, and has always been, more profitable than journalism. The problem for society is that a steady diet of politics-as-entertainment eventually dissolves the moral issues at the core of politics and washes them out of the public conversation. All you are left with is looks and verve and personality and style and who’s up and who’s down. When the media forsakes its role as the moral referee—when they outsource their politics desks to a bunch of former White House spokespeople who slide effortlessly into a new starring role as Person Who Looks Like They Are Doing News While Reciting Talking Points—it leaves the public, who we are all supposed to be working for, ignorant. It allows politicians to glide into office on charm and then proceed to do a series of monstrous things that people do not understand. This sort of moral emptiness, this decision by the establishment media to not even try to wrestle with the material side of political decisions, is driven not by ideology, but by nihilism. They don’t want to do it the hard way, and nobody is making them.
I realize that what I am writing here is unbearably ponderous and also far from novel. But a major symptom of our broken press (which mirrors our broken politics) is that it produces in the public a strong sense that this shit is fucked up and bullshit, but does not give strong clues about why that is or how to escape it. The nihilism that capitalism plants in the politicians and which the media acquiesces to for the sake of expediency filters down to the public. Then everyone is cynical and pissed and dismissive of the whole bullshit enterprise, and then the politicians and the capitalists can carry on with their work without a great deal of public scrutiny, which is just what they prefer. Angry people on both the left and the right often sweep the media itself up in this pernicious group, blending them all together as one big gang of calculating rogues. Really, though, it’s more a matter of the media just taking the easy way out.
Every time you see an interview or a news story in which the main point is how some policy proposal or crisis or tangible action will affect the standing of the politicians themselves—in the polls, in the party, in the reality show of the campaign—you are witnessing a failure of journalism. Or, more precisely, the absence of journalism. The premise of the entire story is fucked. It is backwards. You may hear a defense of this sort of coverage that says: Well, polls and the relative positioning of politicians and parties is important and newsworthy. Sure. It is newsworthy. But it is newsworthy only in the instrumental sense of how this positioning will affect the world. It should be a niche story, not the main headline. The fact that this is the dominant narrative of politics reporting rather than a minor sideshow is irrefutable evidence of a failure to properly answer the question, “What are we all doing here?”
This is a problem for the press to solve itself, but it is not going to solve it without pressure. The media outlets that operate this way, operating as they already do in a warm bath of nihilism, are not going to change unless they lose what keeps them fed: attention. Give your attention to media that does not operate like this. Sorry if that sounds trite, but it’s true. The final indignity of the current arrangement is that publications that do manage to focus on political substance get shunted into a marginal category branded “partisan,” which is another word for “exercising critical judgment.” The outlets that put forth the fantasy that they are the pure voice of god, casting down unbiased judgment from on high, immune to the filthy addiction of partisanship, are, in fact, the ones who have made the calculation that forsaking the type of politics coverage that would actually be of public value is the safest path for themselves. Is that what “irony” means? I can never remember the dictionary definition. Anyhow, that’s why it’s fucked.
Dan Froomkin is a good press critic and I contributed to his recent article on this same topic. Also, for example, see here. Unfortunately everyone who covers politics but does not work at one of the ten biggest outlets is cursed to have to write about this topic continually until we die because the dynamic does not seem to be improving.
Happy belated Labor Day. This year I managed not to write the mandatory “Unions sure are good but also they face challenges and we should think about this Labor Day” column. Hooray for me. If you are thirsty for my labor reporting, please preorder my book. Which is full of it (labor reporting)! The WGA is still on strike and you should go join a picket line if you want to do something to celebrate labor. All the info is here.
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