Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Society Of Choices

In my last post I asked, only half-rhetorically, if any decent candidate could be elected in a campaign dominated by what we call, out of habit, "coverage," especially the chatter of cable and network news. I'm not the first to ask this question, or dread the answer, or be accused of elitism regarding political life, or defeatism regarding Obama's campaign. But my fears are not, as he would say, about him. They are about us. So I'll pursue the point one step more.

Spiro Agnew once said that the press was infected by liberalism. The problem, I think, is that it is infected by behaviorism. Day-in, day-out, we are talked about as bundles of "socialized" appetites, our freedom a matter of "preferences." So what we think is either the product of "ideology" (i.e., of our "demographic") or a kind of impulse buy. Our claims of fact (about history, society, etc.) are, by extension, seen as an expression of our material "interests" or, if we are deeply socialized, "values." You get the idea.

What Frank Rich calls "the bloviators" may have been trumped by Obama last week, but they still manufacture the air. They are not, as he says, just regularly wrong (about the threat of the Clintons' speeches, say), and not all have been skeptical about Obama. They are often right (as about the Biden pick), and some networks, like MSNBC, are nakedly sympathetic to Obama's election. Rather, the press's effect is more subtle, barely visible, like the ambient products of internal combustion engines. Good is what most believe; personal ambition is what's real. An "objective" reporter is someone who uses "scientific methods," that is, impersonal survey research (polling, etc.) or privileged "access," to gauge--how does Cokie put it?--"the perception out there." More and more, reporters are nattering nabobs of narcissism.

LET'S LOOK AT one of last week's least egregious examples, Sunday's "Meet The Press," the program whose former host's tragically premature death received a network tribute lasting longer than the Democratic National Convention itself. Out of a 48-minute broadcast, only about the first 13 minutes were actually devoted to some public figure--in this case, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty--meeting the press. The rest of the time, the press were meeting each other, and debating how they were being swayed.

The host, Tom Brokaw, began his line of questioning of Pawlenty reasonably enough, asking about the Republican National Convention, challenging McCain's choice of Sarah Palin and even parrying Pawlenty's fatuous comparison of Palin's experience to Obama's. There were obvious, but bearable, brand management questions about Palin's views: how her sex, pro-life position, NRA membership, etc., "complemented McCain's message of reform" (though any reporter who gave it a moment's thought would have realized that she sounded eerily like a female George W. Bush in 1996).

But then the interview turned to "creationism," which Palin believes should be taught "side-by-side with evolution" in public schools. "If there are two competing theories and they are credible," Pawlenty responded (with the look of sincerity that's no doubt served him well since his sophomore year), "allow them both to be presented, so that students could be exposed to...both...and make up their own minds."

Forgive me if I consider this a moment of, well, truth for any reporter. Brokaw responded in a way that seemed to defend evolution and challenge Pawlenty: "In the vast scientific community, do you think creationism has the same weight as evolution...?" (Brokaw even spoke about the "crisis" in education.) But look more carefully at his words--at the faux-quantitative language, the implication that "intelligent design" is wrong because some overwhelming consensus among scientists declares it to be, like denying the link between smoking and lung cancer--as if we were not talking about ascribing to a divine intelligence the power to reject science and inquiry itself.

If Brokaw took his profession seriously--if he were indeed a liberal in the classical sense (you know, like the framers of the constitution)--he would have forcefully, even proudly, followed-up:

"Sir, a scientist, like a journalist, for that matter, begins with the premise that we doubt everything, and applies rules of evidence to establish facts, which are subject to empirical test. A theory is therefore provisional in principle. But creationism is not a theory in this sense. It looks at things it pronounces too complex to be explained, and insists, not on doubt, or even mystery, but that these be explained with reference to a divine book, which, by the way, only a small part of the human race considers divine. This is not science. It is religion--and childish religion at that."

Any journalist who cannot say something like this (OK, more succinctly) at the drop of a hat cannot understand why, for example, a free press should exist at all; why we should not be ruled, say, by a despot claiming a revelation that the majority--afraid to be Left Behind--happens to want.

From there, "Meet The Press" went into the "round table," to experts identified by "partisan" ideology, or reporters claiming the authority of polls and insider gossip. Reporters at the table had no real facts to report, since the truth is relative (isn't that what Einstein said, ha-ha?), and they would not want to privilege one side's values over another's. Rather, they prove themselves competent by anticipating better or earlier than other reporters the ways campaigns "play." It's a democracy, right? So smart means predicting what most will come to believe, right? The talk was interrupted only by the scoop of Maria Bartiromo, a stock exchange "analyst" who had interviewed Palin. She lauded Palin's "expertise" in "energy," but if you were paying attention depicted that expertise as something you'd expect from a member of OPEC.

I URGE YOU to compare the Bartimoro segment to, say, Elizabeth Kolbert's recent "Comment" on energy policy in the New Yorker. Does the comparison in tone and substance not prompt a sickening feeling? (Can any "crisis" in education be allayed when Bartimoro's is the television journalism engulfing our teenage children?) Ask yourself, as Kolbert does, the only important question that speaks to a political journalist's real mission: "How important is it for candidates to tell the truth?"

The naïve (and, yes, partly elitist) answer is that the truth should be very important, since a liberal press should be there to embarrass candidates if they don't tell it; then, presumably, an educated citizenry will reject them (and, by the way, any electorate that can follow whether Mark Fuhrman planted OJ's bloody sock, or follow Al Gore's climbing graphs, can follow just about any public policy presented with rigor and common sense).

But the answer, it turns out, is that the truth is not at all important--not if you have a press that thinks, in principle, that truth is impossible, or special pleading, or subject to flocking behavior, or just for suckers. Let's not kid ourselves that a couple of terms of even a great presidency will make a difference.