« In Praise of Focusing American Ire on Small Middle Eastern Nations | Main | The Invincible President »

July 05, 2007

More On Media Manliness

Brian's point that "at the end of election season, actual voters made their decisions on the basis of artifice like Fred Thompson's pick up truck and not on the basis of more serious metrics" is a fair one. The question is why they made that judgment.

Since neither Brian nor I know a whole lot about Tennessee, a more fruitful example may be 2000, when many voters decided to go with the apparently authentic, tough, salt-of-the-earth type rather than the sighing exaggerator. In that case, too, voters cast ballots based on the superficial heuristics that stood in for the election's meganarrative.

But if the media hadn't been atoning for its own insecurities by constantly deriding Gore's wonkish pedantry while making Bush's inexperience and bluster seem like a sort of Heartland wisdom, the outcome might have been very different. It's not hard to imagine an election in which Bush's ignorance of policy became an overwhelmingly negative narrative in just the way Kerry's indecisiveness was. The media simply chose not to do things that way. After all, they know blustery, indecisive intellectuals, and dislike many of them. They don't know people who work on a ranch and don't crave their approval. And without some experience with such types, who are they to judge?

July 5, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

The thing is, though, presidential candidates don't get evaluated in a vacuum. I could be talking out my ass about this — I turned 18 in 2000, and I was in another country for the final few months of the election — but the way I remember it is, Bush wasn't the only candidate running hard to the center using a superficial character-based campaign. Am I the only person who thought that Gore's kissing his wife on stage looked ridiculous, for just one example? But when faced with a choice between two alleged centrists based on very little more than carefully crafted personas, voters chose the one who did a better job of faking it.

Voters shouldn't be superficial, the media shouldn't bend over backwards to help them, this wasn't the only factor in 2000, it's not like Bush even won a majority vote in the first place, there were indeed important differences between the candidates and a lot of the complaints about Gore were unfair if not dishonest. Et cetera ad infinitum. But on the specific question of superficial campaigning, if a candidate actually does have something substantive going for them, they should play to their strengths, not try to beat an actor at his own game.

Posted by: Cyrus | Jul 5, 2007 11:15:10 AM

It seems the gist of what you are complaining about is that they try to emulate folksy American culture. I mean see John Wayne. See Clint Eastwood. All they are doing is copying that into the political arena. I love reading your blog, but my consistent complaint about you is this super intellectualism that gets in the way of understanding how, as my friend once put it, "to not ride into town on the horse backwards." Democrats and progressive should spend less time trying to fight deep seated American mythos, and rather spend more time sticking it into our own process. The advantage is that we get to both appear to be right, and actually be right.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 5, 2007 11:16:37 AM

In the spirit of not being overwonky, I think, Ezra, you over-analyze the media response here. Truth is, most of the media stars who largely control the shape of the discourse in this country are just not terribly bright. They're not morons (with notable exceptions), but they're not really capable of grasping with serious issues at a high intellectual level. Gore challenged them, Bush didn't.

Posted by: Glenn | Jul 5, 2007 11:23:57 AM

All else is rarely equal, but in the event that all else were equal, I’d take inexperienced salt of the earth over a sighing pedant. No contest, in fact.

Posted by: ostap | Jul 5, 2007 11:24:01 AM

This trait of our national press corps is something that occasionally interests me, but I can never really figure it out.

Phil Hartman once said in an interview, if I recall correctly, that the political satires that SNL did were meaner to Democrats than to Republicans because the SNL staff could make fun of GOP policy, but because they agreed with the Democrats, they had to make fun of the Democrats for personal stuff if they were going to keep it balanced.

I think there's something to that, and to what Ezra's pointed out in the last coupla posts, and probably a half-dozen other causal mechanisms (Chris Matthews's comp package probably makes the Bush upper-income tax cuts a lot more attractive, for instance, or David Broder's "not their place" snobbery). So any fair and comprehensive view of the curious conservatism of the news media is probably going to have to acknowledge that there are multiple phenomena going on here.

But I think one thing that really can't be ignored or understated is the extent to which conservatives and Republicans have been successful in convincing (a) themselves and other Republicans, (b) a lot of the country and (c) journalists themselves that the national news really is infected with a Liberal Media Bias (the phrase is of Jesse Helms origins, by the way), and that the personal beliefs of liberals in the newsmedia are not values shared by a majority of Americans. Journalists have internalized this idea that their own judgments can't be trusted, because they're all on the fringe of the political spectrum---just think of how long after it became readily apparent that most Americans thought George Bush wasn't a personally likeable guy, or that the Iraq war was a terrific cluster&*$%, that Chris Matthews and the rest continued to think that of course most Americans think George Bush is a likeable guy or that the only serious foreign policy position was to be pro-war in Iraq, or that Democrats who opposed the war were taking a big political risk. Each of these myths persisted well after published polls indicated most Americans didn't like the president personally and didn't approve of the Iraq war. Yet the thought that most Americans could agree with liberals was something that the media furiously refused to accept. That's a remarkable phenomenon.

Posted by: Jack Roy | Jul 5, 2007 11:25:53 AM

To repeat and expand upon what I said in the previous comments thread: it's a big mistake to assume that Chris Matthews et al. think up these Republican-friendly talking points all by their little ole selves. These narratives are fed to them by very smart and effective right-wing operatives. And the pundit class has been softened up to take the bait because all the whining on the right has made them extremely self-conscious about their alleged liberalism and elitism.

The key for our side is to purge all the Bob Shrum and James Carville-style hacks and tools and replace them with people who actually understand what is going on politically, who want to win, and who are not afraid to shake things up. If we Democrats want one of our own in the White House in '08 we have to go negative early, and hard. We have to create our own narratives about the phoniness and cravenness of the leading Republican candidates.

Of course, in order to inject these narratives into the public discourse where they can gain some traction, we've got to get the media to pick them up. And that's where the crucial role of the liberal blogs and left-wing media activism comes in. To the extent we're pushing back -- "working the refs," as Eric Alterman puts it -- we force the media to stop catering so shamelessly to the right and to be a little more objective for a change. Then they might start being (almost) as catty toward the Republican candidates as they invariably are toward the Democrats. Or at least, less worshipful of those oh so manly Republicans, which amounts to the same thing.

As I said before, the underlying reason for the pundit class's obsession with this Quien es mas macho? bullshit is that the right would much, much rather have a conservation about cultural politics (race, gender, et al.) than about economics. Because if it's about who will best protect the economic interests of the American people, they will lose every time. But if it's about cultural stuff, they have a shot at winning (even though I think long-term trends are running against them there). This last point should be drummed into the mainstream media ad nauseum.

Posted by: Kathy G. | Jul 5, 2007 11:51:06 AM

Uh, for what it's worth, Gore didn't lose the 2000 election in the polls. The voters cast their votes for Gore.

Posted by: sprocket | Jul 5, 2007 11:59:38 AM

"The Media"? How about some "Media" names when writing about this subject in the future? I should think that the New York Times, The Washington Post, Tim Russert, Margaret Carlson, Joe Klein, Maureen Dowd and E. J. Dionne head my list. Unless those (and other) bad actors are regularly called out for the smear jobs they've been conducting against Democratic nominees since 1996, we can look forward to more of the same in '08. It's truly remarkable just how eager the Liberal Media is to wring its hands over the many flaws they preceive in any Democratic nominee.

Posted by: Frank | Jul 5, 2007 12:01:43 PM

Many in the media seem to have have an intense personal dislike for Al Gore. But what makes no sense at all is that many of the same people claimed--- and still claim----that Bush is a basically likeable regular guy. Yet he was by all accounts a rude, mean, out-of-control drunk bully. Since he allegedly stopped drinking, he may be less out-of control-- but he is not a bit less a rude and mean bully. That's obvious not only from the disparaging nicknames and demeaning comments he flings at members of the press, but by the way he treats aides, allies and supporters like Blair and even Rove. What is likeable about any of that? Smug pedantry may be tiresome and irritating, but smug, aggressive, ignorant nastiness is preferable?

Posted by: vile whig | Jul 5, 2007 12:02:47 PM

Isn't this phenomenon one of the main reasons to lament the "professionalization" of journalism? My understanding is that the cheif virtue of the old (probably highly romanticized, but still) working-class model of journalism where bright guys and gals who may or may not have gone to college and didn't make much more than their postman or firefighter worked their way up from the obits was that they had a grasp on the mechanics of politics and could easily see through this sort of bamboozlement.

They weren't always taken in by aw-shucks regular guy politicians because they were regular folks themselves.

It's the insulation of the Washington press corps that leads to a sort of reverse status anxiety.

I think that one big step would be to simply change around reporting assignments. Instead of shipping out a Washington or New York based typer to do the primaries and putting them up in a series of hotels like a tourist, hire some Iowans. Someone who lives in Davenport or Ames and can string together copy with some fluidity. Not because they do have the mythical middle American values, but because they don't have the stain if establishment journalism on them. Instead of a hypothetical reconstruction of what they like in the provinces (that really betrays the reverse status anxiety of Washingtonians like Tim Russert whose so desperate to pretend he's a working class guy he will cling to anything that even hints of "authenticity"), we could at least enjoy listening to the actual provincials.

Posted by: justin | Jul 5, 2007 12:10:42 PM

As I said before, the underlying reason for the pundit class's obsession with this Quien es mas macho? bullshit is that the right would much, much rather have a conservation about cultural politics (race, gender, et al.) than about economics.

Kathy G, I wanted to agree with your comment in its entirety but this passage stopped me dead in my tracks. The issue of race in America is an economic issue. How in the world could you conceive of it as being cultural and, therefore, expendable? You really should rethink this one.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Jul 5, 2007 12:16:19 PM

I don't expect the media to ruthlessly debunk political advertising that is, like Thompson's red-pickup campaign, based on personality rather than issues. As Beutler notes, it's not the media's job to insist that people not vote in such a way.

However, I do expect the media not to provide free advertising of this kind themselves. And though the line between passively transmitting such an appeal, and actively reinforcing it is not clear, they went way, way over it in 2000.

Posted by: kth | Jul 5, 2007 12:20:20 PM

Uh, sprocket--Bush won the popular vote in Tennessee.

I think, Ezra, that in Tennessee specifically, Gore's comments on gun control cost him the election. Gun people hated Clinton sort of the way environmentalists hate Bush (with reason, but to excess); Gore promised to be worse, and people believed him.

Posted by: SamChevre | Jul 5, 2007 12:26:33 PM

W.B., I agree totally that race is an economic issue -- as is gender. But it's also a cultural issue, and much of the classic Republican fear-mongering on race -- "those people" will rape your daughter! ruin your neighborhood! destroy your schools! -- has a large cultural component.

I see the immigration debate as a subset of this kind of race panic. Yes, the immigration issue has a large economic component ("they'll steal your jobs!"). But there's also a lot of freaking out on the right about how "they" are "different", how they're "destroying" our "way of life", how if we go this route, American won't be "recognizable" any more, etc. And that's all cultural stuff, driven by racism.

There's no doubt in my mind that anti-immigrant politics are largely driven by racism. I love to point out that my home town of Chicago has more Polish speakers than any city in the world except Warsaw. But while no one ever speaks a word against the Poles, I hear lots of complaints about Spanish speakers. Hmmm . . . why is that, I wonder?

Posted by: Kathy G. | Jul 5, 2007 12:27:17 PM

Kathy G, I'm glad you elaborated on your view. Of course I agree that there is a cultural component to racism.

However, the fact remains that racism is a pervasive factor in our economy, where its most systemic and devasting effects are felt. Classifying it as primarily, or even largely, a matter of culture falsifies both its nature and its role in US society. It isn't possible to discuss economics in this country, or the world for that matter, intelligently without addressing the question of race.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Jul 5, 2007 12:53:25 PM

I think there’s something to be said for the theory that the media’s trying to overcompensate for their personal liberal tendencies. Given that 9 out of 10 media members vote Democrat, it’s only human nature for them to try to overcompensate for this to look unbiased. So they work extra hard to be evenhanded with Republicans when in fact, they being slightly bias towards them.

Posted by: DM | Jul 5, 2007 12:59:38 PM

I think, Ezra, that in Tennessee specifically, Gore's comments on gun control cost him the election.

I didn't get that impression as much, since East TN was already reliably GOP-- although obviously I live in a city and could be wrong, not really knowing or caring about any gun nuts-- because the biggest shift between 1996 & 2000 was, well, Monica. Sex. The Bible Belt-- the SBC's headquarters is at Ninth & Commerce (heh), and religious publishing is one of the bigger industries in decadent ol' Nashville. Plus let's not forget that the late nineties saw a real shift in the non-talk-radio media, with the rise of Faux News, and that solidified and mainstreamed the cultural resentment of not only gun owners, but all rural/conservative types.

I say this frequently, both IRL & online, but IMO it's important: at the federal level, the South is going to stay in the GOP's pocket-- meaning that neither Gore nor Edwards would be likely to make a dent in electoral votes-- for several more cycles at least. Last stands & lost causes are a specialty here, after all, and really the only thing that breaks through the obstinacy is, well, marginalization. It's not a matter of convincing southerners to be more progressive so much as it is making them watch their pols lose power and other regions' pols gain it... then, after a while, the south will come around on some progressive issues, complaining all the while that they would have done it sooner if everyone else hadn't been so darned mean to them about it. It's just the way things are down here.

Posted by: latts | Jul 5, 2007 1:35:53 PM

Yet he was by all accounts a rude, mean, out-of-control drunk bully

Yes, true, but it's also a form of social manipulation. Bush was that mean, out-of-control bully to those that displeased him, including Gore. The press felt as though they were "part of the in crowd" because both they and Bush could together engage in mockery of Gore AND could both engage together in out-of-control bullying of other members of the press who disagreed with Bush and/or the rest of the press corps. It also ends up causing a sort of "battered wife" syndrome amongst the press corps-- none of them wanted to dissent from the line lest they themselves become the target of the bullying. Since Bush was by all accounts part of the social elite that members of the press wish they were part of, going along with Bush not only protected them from the bulk of the bullying but made them feel accepted in a circle that they were otherwise isolated from. Bush is "likable" in that people want to be liked by him, and will do what they can do stay in his graces, precisely because he is, deep down,
an extremely mean person.

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 5, 2007 2:08:07 PM

Phil Hartman once said in an interview, if I recall correctly, that the political satires that SNL did were meaner to Democrats than to Republicans because the SNL staff could make fun of GOP policy, but because they agreed with the Democrats, they had to make fun of the Democrats for personal stuff if they were going to keep it balanced. - Jack Roy

And since most people engage more with the personal stuff over the policy stuff (which sells more? the National Enquirer? or [pick your favorite wonky mag here]? -- markets might be far from perfect, but they do tell us something about demand, eh?), people will thus be more turned off by the personal anti-Dem. stuff than the anti-GOP policy stuff.

Which is why, even if the media is, in fact, dominated by liberals, it does not necessarily mean that media bias benefits liberals ...

Posted by: DAS | Jul 5, 2007 6:05:17 PM

Phil Hartman once said in an interview, if I recall correctly, that the political satires that SNL did were meaner to Democrats than to Republicans because the SNL staff could make fun of GOP policy, but because they agreed with the Democrats, they had to make fun of the Democrats for personal stuff if they were going to keep it balanced. - Jack Roy

And since most people engage more with the personal stuff over the policy stuff (which sells more? the National Enquirer? or [pick your favorite wonky mag here]? -- markets might be far from perfect, but they do tell us something about demand, eh?), people will thus be more turned off by the personal anti-Dem. stuff than the anti-GOP policy stuff.

Which is why, even if the media is, in fact, dominated by liberals, it does not necessarily mean that media bias benefits liberals ...

Posted by: DAS | Jul 5, 2007 6:06:00 PM

Given that 9 out of 10 media owners and executives vote Republican, it’s only human nature for their reporter-employees to overcompensate for this to keep their jobs.

Posted by: Frank | Jul 6, 2007 6:40:25 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.