Monday, January 29, 2007

The Huffle-Shuffle: Sounds in a vacuum

The rat race has begun, a full year and change before the first primary battle, and the number of potential nominees that have announced they are running is mind-boggling. The money, the candidates and the wide-open primary fields - It’s all anyone in the media can talk about; we have 24 hours of news, and now we have to fill it.

And already the void is being filled by nonsense. Discussions about Barak Obama’s middle name – Hussein – being a political factor preceded any real-life political reference or mention of his name, in effect making it an issue; the minor scandal around the false report of Obama attending a Madrassa, an Islamic school, during his time in Indonesia was generated, reported and debunked entirely in the ether that is our media, with no actual political news. Everything from the details of the announcements – mostly made online, in informal "video chats" – to the ridiculous post-SOTU jockeying for camera space has been covered in perpetuity, and the real race is more than a year off. Those in the media are already placing their own bets and creating news out of nothingness.

It seems Larry Sabato’s 1991 book, “Media Feeding Frenzy,” was ahead of its time. In it, he outlines how much pack journalism on Capitol Hill has altered American politics since Watergate; it’s oftentimes in the last thirty years that the coverage has become more of a political factor than the actual events reported on, due to the volume of reporters and news services available – and blogs have definitely added to that clash of many voices.

The question is, is any of this nonsense good for the American people? Is anyone better-informed or represented right now that they can spend 24 hours aggregating news in RSS feeders and watching round-the-clock news?

The candidates are talking much more than they used to, at least publicly, and it is reaching a much wider audience thanks to the convergence of print, Internet, radio and television coverage. These candidates seem to always be talking, talking, talking … but little of substance is really being said for fear of invoking a rapid and escalating response under the media’ microscope. For example, Hillary Clinton’s innocuous comment about knowing what it is like to deal with “evil, bad men” was most likely aimed at the terrorists of 9/11, but instead was interpreted (and discussed ad nauseum) as a reference to her philandering husband – what was not a mistake but rather a generic statement left open to interpretation has instead become somehow newsworthy.

This is nothing new. For years Americans’ intelligence has been insulted with details of candidates’ personal lives, of speaking gaffes, of “Free Poland” moments. It doesn’t seem likely that any American policy or law will be affected by these tidbits, the same way Gerald Ford slipping down the stairs of Air Force One or Jimmy Carter’s lust-in-my-heart Playboy interview did. But they do qualify for news in our post-Watergate world – and they do seriously alter who gets elected and who doesn’t, by wide margins. If a candidate falls in the woods, and there’s no reporter around to blow it out of proportion, does it make a sound?

So for the next year, we can expect detailed information about candidates’ finances, speaking gaffes, innocuous pasts and meticulously prepared CVs. Meanwhile, little serious journalism will be done about the bills and votes presented before congress, much to the detriment of the public good. But hey, sex sells – and Congressional records, committee reports, and actual bills don’t – the kind of dry source journalism still conducted by C-SPAN and Congressional Quarterly – at least not to enough people to be relevant.

What we need is detailed television news breaking down bill components, committee hearings and financial developments, budget items and the lagniappe associated with the real governmental process – covered in a comprehensive, and comprehendible, manner.

I’d argue that a lot of this is already done, but that there just isn’t enough of it to go around. It’s the kind of journalism that requires too much shoe-leather and not enough immediate payback in hours of political graphics and talking-head responses. That’s the only real journalism though; the rest, I’d argue, is just white noise.

In the age where all discussion happened at the print level, Arthur Miller once said “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” That now applies to all media – blogs, television and radio. Well, we’re talking these days … it’s just not about much.