How we talk about this - Macleans.ca
 

How we talk about this


 

George Packer considers the way we discuss this stuff.

Broder wasn’t analyzing Palin’s positions or accusations, or the truth or falsehood of her claims, or even the nature of the emotions that she appeals to. He was reviewing a performance and giving it the thumbs up, using the familiar terminology of political journalism. This has been so characteristic of the coverage of politics for so long that it doesn’t seem in the least bit odd, and it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way. A couple of weeks ago, the Times ran a piece by its lead political reporter, Adam Nagourney, about a Republican strategy session in Hawaii: “Here in Honolulu, the strains within the party over conservative principles versus political pragmatism played out in a sharp and public way, especially as the party establishment struggled to deal with the demands of the Tea Party movement.” The structure of the sentence, and of the article, puts the emphasis entirely on tactics and performance. This kind of prose goes down as easily and unnoticeably as a glass of sparkling water, with no aftertaste. Readers interested in politics drink quarts of it every day without gaining weight. And Broder and Nagourney are at the top of their game.


 

How we talk about this

  1. An interesting point. Reporting about politics these days is so much reporting about the politics themselves, not the policies, positions, or substance underlying them.

    And then we get the reporting about how people are increasingly feeling that politics doesn't matter.. because what they see of it from the media.. really doesn't.

  2. For the past 20 years or so, government concerns itself more with marketing than good governance and msm decided it would rather judge the quality of the marketing campaigns rather than focus on real news. This one of the reasons why I believe many people are fed up with pols and msm – neither is doing their job properly.

    • You say "they're not doing their jobs properly" and "supposedly smart, but really vacuous" as if it's a failing of ability, but I don't see it that way.

      Political leaders and media executives are, generally, as smart as they claim. Smart enough to see that good marketing gets you re-elected more reliably and more easily than good governance does (remember what Ian Brodie said at McGill last year?). Smart enough to see that vacuous horse-race reporting gets better ratings than actual engaged coverage.

      And crucially, smart enough to see that the honour of a job well done only rarely measures up to keeping that job. We can blame them for being pathologically selfish, certainly, but the answer isn't to yell at the scorpion for stinging us, it's to ask ourselves why we keep asking the scorpion to carry us across the river in the first place.

      • "Smart enough to see that good marketing gets you re-elected more reliably and more easily than good governance does"

        Where is the proof of this assertion? The only PMs we have as examples are Chretien, Martin and Harper. Chretien won three majorities but only because conservatives were split while neither Martin or Harper have thrilled the nation. People who pay attention to politics are dying for proper debates and governing while everyone else does not seem to care one way or another what pols say or do.

        And I want to make clear that I don't believe government marketing itself is a relatively new phenomenon, I know it isn't. I just believe mix is askew- way to much focus on message and not enough on governance. If I was PM – god help you all – I would be thinking about my legacy and what will it be. PMs Chretien, Martin and Harper are entirely forgettable and will have no legacy at all.

        Treat adults like adults and I believe you will be rewarded.

        • I think you're right that a politician of substance, all other things being equal, will do much better than the operators we seem to have currently. But I think the marketing completely outweighs it. A well-marketed Nero is more likely to get elected than a badly-marketed Pericles.

          • I agree that marketing is wildly important during election campaigns but not nearly as much after you win power.

            President Obama is great example, I think.

            Obama's a light weight but msm and many others bought into his message and helped puff him up into something he is not. But Obama is paying now – he still thinks he is campaigning while he should be governing – and he and his party are being punished at polls.

            If Obama does not make changes soon, he's going to be Jimmy Carter II and voters will be glad to see back of him after one mediocre term.

          • Obama is a lightweight? You mean intellectually? Compared to whom?

          • Everyone except Biden?

        • "People who pay attention to politics are dying for proper debates and governing while everyone else does not seem to care one way or another what pols say or do. "

          The problem is that your second category vastly outnumbers the first. And they still vote despite being disengaged besides that, out of a sense of civic duty or some other reason. And the entire point of government marketing is to appeal to them, because they're vastly easier prey than actually doing a good job in a role that requires you to manage so many things that are outside your control.

          Where is the proof that treating a modern electorate like adults gets you anywhere? Manning tried it, Dion tried it, all Big Ideas and Principles and Vision, and their opponents were better marketers and crucified them at the polls.

          Just like Thwim says for the media – if you want to change governance, you have to change the underlying incentive structure. How can we make it so good policy wins elections instead of good marketing? Because that's the only way this will change.

          • "Manning tried it, Dion tried it, all Big Ideas and Principles and Vision, and their opponents were better marketers and crucified them at the polls."

            I am not arguing that marketing is not important, especially during an election campaign. I believe marketing is important.

            What irks me a great deal is how much marketing occurs between elections – how much money does government spend annually to try and spin public with their bs. And instead of trying to burst this bubble, msm goes along with it. Good governance markets itself – governments would not have to worry about spinning public if they were half way competent.

            I know Wells writes about this once a year or so – I think this was his most recent. And I agree wholeheartedly with Wells when he writes about vacuous nature.

            "What we do these days in Ottawa is keep score. Everyone does it. Nobody seems able to stop. The first question, in the overheated office buildings around Parliament Hill, isn't whether something is true or false, a good idea or bad: it's whether it will help the Conservatives or the opposition."

            http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/11/27/torture-all-ab

          • "Good governance markets itself."

            I wish that were the case. Even now, I only suspect it isn't, rather than being sure. (I'm young enough, I think, that my only experience with "good governance" is in the realm of might-have-beens).

            But while we're dueling with old Macleans articles, I'd point to the Geddes article from last year (http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/03/27/ian-brodie-off… about the Ian Brodie speech I reference upthread.

            What seems indisputable is that "good marketing" is an easier route to the same benefit – re-election – than good governance is. Making the right decisions is hard, given the challenges that face a natioanl government. Lying to people is easy, and you don't lost anything by it if you're not caught (and often even if you are caught, because useful idiots on your side won't believe the whistleblower, will accuse them of bias, or won't understand the truth, or will say "politicians are all like that", or one of a thousand other ways to blunt the impact of your being caught.)

  3. "The truth of the matter is that, given the internet, all media outlets are having a harder time gaining an audience."

    You ever heard of this thing called Fox News? How about this other thing called Macleans?

    • You ever looked at the depth of their reporting?

      Wells thing on the R&D is an exception. But look at the stories that top the Most Read

      • The point was about leftish reporting being an economic albatross. All orgs that try it face hardship – I know of no exceptions – yet many continue anyway. Orgs that go rightward (Fox) or aim for the centre (Macleans) seem often to do reasonably well.

        Therefore if economics were the sole factor, no news agency would persist in the NYT or MSNBC approach. Therefore other factors outweigh the economics. QED.

  4. It's like eating a bag of chips. Takes very little effort. Feels good. But leaves you empty not long afterwards.

  5. Yes, the problem is that when the media tries to engage in the issues themselves they are generally accused of bias. The easy way out is to just cover machinations and tactics.

    The harder (and much superior) way out is to engage the issues in an open-minded and evenhanded manner. I think most journalists are incapable of this, however, because the J-community view many issues as being either incontestable (abortion, gay marriage, global warming, the worth of universal health care) or stupid (euthanasia), they find it hard to cover these as an open question. And in a few cases they're just afraid to deal with something that might ruin their career (political correctness, gender disparities, Islam).

    • "because the J-community view many issues as being either incontestable (abortion, gay marriage, global warming, the worth of universal health care) or stupid (euthanasia)"

      I have slightly different view but mostly agree with your overall point. My impression is that msm does not focus on many issues is because they are convinced that most Canadians are one step up from Nazis and can't be trusted with knowledge or debates or anything that contradicts latte liberal view of the world.

      If Canadians are exposed to anything other than pre-approved liberal shibboleths, we will run amok and kill everyone or somesuch.

      • Your impression may be coloured by the heavy medication you're on.

      • "they are convinced that most Canadians are one step up from Nazis"

        Project much?

        • Don't we all?

      • Are you two serious? I mean, I know Gaunilon is a firm Alcan supporter but I'd begun to think better of jolyon.

        I think it's really pretty obvious, the MSM does not focus on substantive issues for three simple reasons:

        1. It's harder than just reporting on the marketing, which is easy to get at and understand.
        2. The substantive issues are controlled by the same people who also have most of the control over whether the press gets access to any of it. Critical reporting of such does not bode well for hopes of future access either to the substantive stuff *or* the marketing stuff.
        3. The marketing fluff sells anyway.

        It's simple economics.. I'd have at least hoped Gaunilon would have respect for that: Easier to get marketing fluff = lower cost = more profit from the same sales.

        You want to change reporting? You need to change the economic model underlying it.

        • I think you raise some good points, setting aside the childish insults. Economics certainly is a big factor, but there seems to be more to it than that. Take the New York Times of MSNBC, for example. Their current approach of blatantly covering from the left is a complete failure economically, yet they pursue it regardless. This suggests that economics are not the only force at work, or even the predominant one.

          Either
          (A) they've been immersed within their echo chamber (J-school, the J-community, New York) for so long that they've lost sight of the fact that there are even two sides to these stories, or
          (B) they're motivated by smaller scale economics: fear of being blackballed within their own profession if they treat these issues openly and evenhandedly, or
          (C) they would prefer that these issues not be brought out to the light of day for open discussion, because the result may not be a political win for their favored ideology.

          • I'd point to the Western Standard and various right wing publications that have gone out of business to suggest that it's not just a leftish view that loses money.

            The truth of the matter is that, given the internet, all media outlets are having a harder time gaining an audience.

        • I agree with your first point, disagree with second point and think your third one is completely wrong.

          1) I agree that it is easier to report on marketing than substantive issues but reporters are supposedly well educated, curious people. Why are they focused on fluff?

          2) This ties in with your first point about how it is easier to focus on ephemeral than substance. I agree that it is hard to report on some issues because of tight lipped pols but how do Brit reporters manage to report on substance when they face same type of pol. There is huge pol expenses scandal going on over there at the moment – the scandal was broken by a newspaper and not one pol helped them out in their investigation.

          3) Proof is in pudding. Declining sales suggest that marketing fluff does not, in fact, sell newspapers. I am convinced that papers specifically have done too many focus groups with people who don't buy papers and not enough with people who do. To me, most Canadian papers appear as though they are produced for people who don't read them.

          • 1. You've got a deadline, a 600 word column to fill, three junior reporters looking for a job behind you, and an editor who's saying that if we don't draw more eyes, we're going to have to cut another 2% of the workforce — every week.

            Do you: A) Spend the time digging into something that may or may not be fruitless, may damage contacts you've established, and will probably involve some sort of obscure details which really only the obsessive will worry about and which will be instantly debated by those with horses in the race or
            B) Take the easy route to get your word count in with something that you know most people seem to have a passing interesting in at least, and promise yourself you'll do better next time?

      • I see your point but I'd express it a little differently. I think the MSM (and the left in general) would often prefer to leave serious issues undiscussed because they know that an open debate will often not end well for their favored ideology. One sees this explicitly in terms of issues being labelled "settled" when they are in fact widely contentious – it's an attempt to keep the discussion out of the public forum.

    • Steyn takes on controversial topics, but does so in such an intellectually dishonest way that it doesn't make sense to use him as an example of how journalists should practice their trade.

  6. "I agree that marketing is wildly important during election campaigns but not nearly as much after you win power. "

    You can never govern if you never win power. Nor can you govern for the long term if you can't hold power. You can't separate "governing" from "winning elections".

    • "You can't separate "governing" from "winning elections"."

      Why not? Campaigns and governing are two entirely different things.

      Campaigns are full of vacuous content that no one really believes while governing means you have to take positions on issues of the day.

      As just one example, Flaherty made some minor changes to mortgage lending laws yesterday. That is governing. Cons have proposed changes to criminal act but nothing ever seems to become law. One reason after another is presented for why Cons never get around to passing crime legislation. That's marketing.

      More focus on laws and regs and less on marketing would go long way in helping party win elections.