Spineless Wimps

In a development that wold have been unthinkable this time last year, Joe Klein, a man who has covered a very large amount of Presidential campaigns (just ask him), has actually been banned from the McCain campaign plane. The McCain campaign tried to play it off as an error of paperwork, but always delightful Michael Goldfarb bascially let the truth slip when he responded toa question about it with “we don’t let Daily Kos diarists on the plane either.”

Goldfarb’s recurring obsession with the liberal blogosphere aside, one point that needs to be made here is that there’s nothing wrong with this, so far as the campaign goes. The campaign’s interest is to get favorable press, so obviously they’re going to do what they need to do to accomplish that end. The problem here is with Time, who sits idly by as their employees are treated this way. There was a time when an organization would have responded to something like this by systematically denying coverage to the McCain campaign, or maybe even by writing a bunch of stories about the heavy handed ways in which the campaign was impeding the flow of information to the public. And more importantly, other outlets would have joined them, because if it could happen to one of them, it could happen to any of them. And the campaign would be forced to accept journalism as a fact of life. Nowadays, the profilic profit motive amongst a large degree of competitors make that sort of thing impossible, and if Time takes its ball and goes home, someone like The Washington Post will step in to fill the void, and Time will lose money. So the net result is that people who tell the truth, instead of just regurgitating talking points, like Joe Klein see their careers suffer for it, while glorified stenographers and flaks like Mark Halperin flourish.

All of this highlights, yet again, the way that cable news and, yes, the internet have fundamentally destroyed the flow of information in our political discourse (and yes, I recognize the irony of saying this on a blog). 30 years ago, political media was basically a handful of daily newspapers, a couple of wire services, and 30 minutes of television on the networks at dinnertime. There wasn’t much space to fill, and so recitation of facts worked just fine. If someone wanted to create a big event, you could go digging around for facts and truth, and break major stories like Watergate that take a lot of time and effort to investigate.

Cable and the internet changed all of that. Cable brought with it 24 hours a day worth of time to fill, while the internet brought the need for constant updates through the day, and a wider array of competition from sources like Politico and, yes, blogs. This creates both a constant need for content, and something new to talk about, as well as the need to go with what “sells” to keep the advertising dollars you need to finance “journalism.” And what sells isn’t nose-to-the-grindstone journalism, it’s stories.

Think of it this way; The Dark Knight; made a lot of money, because a lot of people went to see it. But if the movie had just been a series of scenes involving Batman fighting bank robbers, drug dealers, and petty criminals, it wouldn’t have held anyone’s interest for 2 hours. It would have gotten repetitive, uninteresting, and downright boring. Instead, it needs a story arc; an introduction, a conflict, and a resolution, all tied together connecting the movie together and providing something to watch and stay interested in. Or, better still, we could look at my favorite television show, House. If the show merely accurately depicted a day in the life of an average hospital doctor, it’d be incredibly boring and I wouldn’t watch it. So, in the plot line, Dr. House is a world renowned diagnostician who gets cases incredibly rare and complicated cases that are hard to figure out and overly dramatic, but that means it can hold my attention for an hour. But if that was all that the show was, I’d lose interest at some point, as you can only watch the same basic thing so many times before you don’t care anymore, or at the very least it wouldn’t matter if I missed a particular episode. So the show puts heavy emphasis on character development and relationships to tie the whole series together, and really make me want to watch each episode so I don’t miss anything.

This is basically the problem cable and the internet have created for the political media. Important facts aren’t constantly filtering out for reporting, and even if they were you can only recite facts so many times before people get bored and turn you off. So we compensate with “analysis,” people tossing out opinions and getting into shouting matches on TV to create something approaching watchable television/readable websites. And this is perfectly fine on a certain level. If people want to get this sort of thing from me, or O’Reilly, or Olbermann, or whoever that’s just fine in a certain context. The further problem is that the portions of the media that are packaged as “reporting” need some sort of stroyline to tie them all together, what we call a “narrative.” And journalism doesn’t do that. Woodward and Bernstein weren’t crafting a narrative against Nixon, they were digging out facts and finding evidence to uncover a scandal. But that doesn’t sell in a 24/7 world. So what we have is the media putting a bunch of people like Mark Halperin, who are very good storytellers, at the forefront and people like Joe Klein, that is, journalists, getting moved to the back of the bus. And if that’s what we want, that’s what we want. But let’s drop the pretense that our newsmedia is stocked with “journalists” and just admit what it is; a great big profit industry that makes money by crafting and telling stories about politis for mass consumption.