Dec 10, 2010

No Comment, No Coverage

By James Jeffrey

Veteran journalist Nicholas Von Hoffman once said: “If you listen to any president of the United States, ‘power’ is a word he never discusses. Senators never use that word either. If you don’t talk about power, it’s like not lifting the hood of the automobile. You don’t know how the damn thing works.”

Nowadays, journalists not infrequently claim that politicians won’t talk about anything, let alone power. This means people are even more in the dark about how “the damn thing works” in the American polity.

In Texas’ gubernatorial race this fall, incumbent Rick Perry refused to debate his opponent because he didn’t feel the need to do so in a country where today partisan vitriol and strategic silence trump thoughtful discourse. But let’s remember, it was the traditional American town meeting that formed the basis of the democratic dream—open discussion among all citizens. The idea was to keep in check the potent few by the impotent many. Journalists could act as the voice for the “impotent many.”

How far we’ve come. In New York’s race for governor, Tea Party candidate Carl Paladino , not only refused to answer journalist Fredric Dicker’s question, he threatened to “take [Dicker] out.” Closer to home, Rick Perry was able to stiff-armed requests to meet with newspaper editorial boards.

By contrast, the 2010 United Kingdom General Election underscored the political significance of debate. Until then, the UK, like America, had a two-party system in effect, pitting the Conservative and Labour Parties against one another, with the third runner-up, the Liberal Democrats, never in serious contention.

This time, however, the Liberals caught fire after a televised three-way debate in which party leader Nick Clegg posted an impressive performance. The result: a new Conservative-Liberal coalition government. Thus a TV debate arguably transformed the British political landscape, while American politicians seemed only too eager to duck the fray.

Texas Tribune reporter Brandi Grissom noted in an e-mail interview that Gov. Perry had little to gain by attending editorial boards as “the constituency he targeted most directly… very conservative voters and Tea Party sympathizers, have a less-than-favorable view, in general, of the media.”

Changing attitudes toward political debate in America don’t stop with the politicians, of course. All too often journalism seeks only to follow the election “horse race,” instead of illuminating ideas behind the “race.” Bill Minutaglio, a Journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said journalism should be about “drilling down to the substantive, core matters.”

Instead, he said Linda Chavez-Thompson’s bid to unseat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was overlooked by mainstream media in Texas, due to the “inordinate fascination” with the gubernatorial race.

New media tools have created further disincentives for politicians to cooperate with the press. Robert Jensen, also a journalism professor at UT, said use of “social media and other forms… make it easier to go around conventional journalism.” Press-averse politicians can combine campaign Web sites, social media, blogs and select cable network appearances to enthrall their die-hard voters. Grissom added that politicians can now “shape their message without the editing process and tough questions that journalists present.”

The result, according to Chris Tomlinson, managing editor of the Texas Observer, is “candidates are now picking their voters, rather than the other way around.”

That’s not entirely a new development. In 1927, philosopher John Dewey wrote of political actors who “have developed an extraordinary facility in enlisting upon their side the inertia, prejudices and emotional partisanship of the masses by use of a technique, which impedes free enquiry and expression. We seem to be approaching a state of government by hired promoters of opinion called publicity agents.”

And Nicolas Von Hoffman’s caveat about politicians avoiding the “power” word still rings true as well. UT’s Jensen said the media today have “no idea that when you define the political world in the same way that powerful people do, you rely on those powerful people to shape the news and provide most of the material you use.”

It was for good reason that America’s founders protected the press with the First Amendment. They realized that a free, inquisitive and demanding press was the buttress against demagoguery and the rise of despotism. Perhaps now both politicians and journalists need reminding of this in equal measure.