31 July 2008

Toward a Unified Field Theory of Bullshit

Preview of Coming Attractions: I’m working on a post about the band the Drive-By Truckers, which I’ll hopefully have up in the next day or two.

But whenever I sit down to finish it, I wind up getting sucked in to the daily coverage of the presidential race again (this is why I couldn’t blog for four months). I continue to be transfixed not only by the abject stupidity of at least 90 percent of what passes for political discourse in our news media but also by how this stupidity is taken for granted by nearly everyone, including both the producers and the consumers of this junk. I don’t understand how a lot of media people manage to go about their jobs with a straight face, how they avoid becoming overwhelmed with the absurdity of the whole dog and pony show. Anyone who takes this meta-universe of constant chatter too seriously is clearly someone not to be trusted.

Nevertheless, it remains essential, if only out of some abstract duty to history, to single out some of the more obnoxious trends, dumbest ideas, and most ridiculous teapot tempests to come out of this year’s presidential race. But the theorist in me yearns for more, for some greater explanation. So consider this an initial stab toward a set of general propositions—call them first principles of my analysis of the presidential race. Any argument that runs counter to these must be regarded with extreme suspicion:

Laziness trumps all. As in most forms of human endeavor, problems in media coverage are far more often the result of laziness than malice. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about so-called liberal or conservative “bias” in the media. And while there are certainly individuals, and even entire news operations, that are indeed slanted this way or that, most of what people think of as media bias is the result of simple human laziness. Given the reality of perpetual deadlines, it’s much easier for reporters to let the campaigns dictate what the “news” will be on a given day than to research and report their own original stories. Hence, we get the daily rounds of dueling press releases from the two campaigns seeking to set the day’s agenda. This is also one of the factors driving the endless repetition of certain stories, including the infantile obsession with showing the same bits of video over and over and over again; sometimes such stories help (or more often, hurt) one candidate and sometimes the other, but the process by which they develop is fundamentally a capricious one.

2. The horserace factor. It is important to remember at all times that the MSM has a significant material investment in making sure that the race is perceived as close all the way to the end. This ironclad reality has led directly to the single dumbest metanarrative of the campaign right now: the idea that Barack Obama isn’t winning by enough. I can’t even count the number of articles I’ve seen over the past week reporting on some new poll showing an Obama lead as being good news for McCain. We’re not gambling on football here. There’s no point-spread. (Except during the primaries, when there kind of was a point-spread on some of the contests, but those days are happily over with).

3. Nature abhors a vacuum. Most coverage of the presidential race is driven not by external events, but by the need for constant content. Like #2, this is fairly obvious, but bears frequent repeating. Hence the large number of pieces to be found on sites like Politico and Real Clear Politics that don’t introduce any new facts or even any new opinions. Most articles labeled as “analysis” or “commentary” exist only for the sake of maintaining circulation, Web traffic, etc. For mostly market-based reasons, such content for content’s sake tends to gravitate toward bogus media-driven stories.

People frequently complain—and usually justifiably—about how the MSM seldom covers serious policy issues during presidential campaigns, but it should be obvious that such policy coverage is completely antithetical to the way the media functions. Detailed coverage of, say, the differences between the candidates’ tax proposals or their contrasting views on energy policy would clearly violate all three of the principles outlined above. Policy coverage requires time, money, and effort for research (as well as reporters with some detailed issue-specific knowledge, a rare species at many MSM outlets), has the potential to upset the horserace coverage by highlighting concrerte weaknesses in the candidates, which may or may not balance each other out, and runs completely counter to the 24-hour news cycle and its constant demand for new content. My next post will have nothing to do with the presidential race. I promise.

12 July 2008

No Weak Sister

Well, it’s been a big week for the Politics of Parsing. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it seems that the type of non-news news stories that dominate the daily coverage of the presidential race take on particular prominence during stretches when nothing substantial is happening. In other words, the less is actually going on in the race, the louder the media chatter becomes. This became clear during the six-week death march between the Mississippi and Pennsylvania primaries, dominated by crazy-pastor news and the like, and we’re currently in the middle of another slow stretch, with running-mate announcements likely still over a month away. Just in the past week, we’ve seen minor flare-ups over such pressing national issues as whether the Obama children should have been allowed to appear in a TV interview, what McCain’s apparently newfound affinity for the Pittsburgh Steelers might say about his character, and (slightly more substantial) some truly asinine comments by McCain senior economic adviser Phil Gramm.

But there was one interesting incident, involving the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who in a careless hot-mic moment, expressed his desire to do some intimate bodily harm to Barack Obama, apparently over his allegedly “talking down” to the black community (Jackson would know, I suppose) in an otherwise noncontroversial Father’s Day speech exhorting black men to be more involved in the lives of their children. The media, rightly I think, portrayed the incident as a political boon for Obama (you just can't buy this kind of publicity), with some even comparing it to Bill Clinton’s hallowed “Sister Souljah moment,” much beloved by the MSM. For those who don’t remember this transcendent act of statesmanlike courage, the phrase refers to an incident in the spring of 1992 when Clinton used a Jackson-hosted conference as an occasion to browbeat the rapper and political activist Sister Souljah over some comments she’d made about the Rodney King riots (and which Clinton had shamelessly ripped out of context). Jackson was furious, but the incident was widely seen as giving Clinton some street cred with white voters nervous about rioting black city-dwellers.

Obama has shown himself to be a far less cynical politician that Clinton, and his Father’s Day speech was largely on point, but Jackson probably wasn’t wrong in thinking that its intended audience included white people, some of whom may have taken an unseemly delight at the sight of a black politician talking tough to people of his own race. Which brings me to a central truth about Barack Obama: He is, in fact, a politician, and a shrewd and skillful one at that. (One doesn’t become the first black president of the Harvard Law Review without being a shrewd and skillful politician.) To paraphrase Bill Parcells: this is a good thing, not a bad thing. Hence, the genius of Obama’s feints toward the center in recent weeks and the misguided nature of the overheated liberal response (although, of course, the elicitation of such a response was part of the point). With the exception of his disappointing cave-in on the FISA legislation, Obama has been able to broaden his appeal without conceding any substantive ground, an exceedingly difficult feat for a Democrat. In the 40 years since the departure of Lyndon Johnson, one of the truly great operators in American political history, Democratic presidential nominees have too often come off as cynical (Clinton) or weak (Dukakis, Kerry), if not both at once (Gore).

Like all politicians, Obama will disappoint even his admirers from time to time; the FISA vote was one such time and, if he’s elected president, there will doubtless be others. But he is a different kind of Democratic politician and not just because he’d never stoop to using a young activist as a punching bag. We’ll also never see him getting his picture taken in a tank, hiring a consultant to teach him how to be a man, or sitting by idly for a month while a bunch of hired thugs assassinate his character.

Here’s the first electoral-map update. I can’t believe I’m even writing this, but North Dakota, a state that’s only gone Democratic in three presidential elections and none since 1964, appears to be in play, with a new poll showing a dead heat. Everything else stays put for now.

STRONG OBAMA (200): California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (15), New York (31), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (11)

WEAK OBAMA (55): Iowa (7), Michigan (17), Pennsylvania (21), Wisconsin (10)

TOSS-UPS/TRUE SWING STATES (62): Colorado (9), Missouri (11), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), Ohio (20), Virginia (13)

WEAK MCCAIN (67): Alaska (3), Florida (27), Indiana (11), Montana (3), Nevada (5), North Carolina (15), North Dakota (3)

STRONG MCCAIN (154): Alabama (9), Arizona (10), Arkansas (6), Georgia (15), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (9), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (8), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (34), Utah (5), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3)