Discuss and Repeat


The sameness of the reporting represents lost opportunities for the candidates and the American public, both of whom need to come to terms with choices that await those who will govern.

I must have been about eight when the Army tried to teach me to swim.  It is not a pleasant memory, mostly because the gray cavern of its hospital pool near Denver was a sensory horror show.  The method of instruction then was fairly simple: swim or drown. A large metal hook attached to a long pole stood at the ready to help fish out the small bodies that weren’t doing well in the deep end. Aside from the cold water and the indifferent Army instructors, my principal memory of the place was its continuous and shrill echo. Old indoor pools were built out of the same materials as industrial plants, with lots of sound-reflective gray tile. No wonder so many kids raised on the high plains viewed H2O as best used in limited amounts with Coke syrup.

Now we all live in a kind of dank echo chamber.  To the extent we allow it, news comes to us in endless discuss and repeat cycles.  After a few short breaks we get more repetition of the same candidate accusations against each other followed by the same empty punditry.

I’m thinking of cable news here.  But this constant echo is similar for the principle stories covered by most national news sites. This is because campaigns tend or organize each day around a principle talking event and a carefully considered photo opportunity. The “message of the day” is meant to be represented in both, triggering a 24/7 news cycle that tracks the same uninteresting event endlessly.

 Campaigns have a way of leaving us with the impression that we’ve heard way too much about too little.

On April 7, for example, Bernie and Hillary got into a dust-up over whether either was “qualified” to be president. Over two news cycles that was the major story that reverberated in the nation’s ears.  It turns out that it was mostly triggered by a Washington Post headline that misrepresented Hillary’s more carefully worded doubts about Bernie. The details hardly matter, other than to note that most news organizations could not pull themselves away from this insubstantial campaign overstatement.  A plan for addressing America’s chronic underemployment?  No time.  Getting clear about ISIS and whether we have the national capacity to subdue it?  Maybe tomorrow.  Ways to help stabilize the European Union? The candidates haven’t been asked.  Campaigns have a way of leaving us with the impression that we’ve heard way too much about too little.

There’s also another feature of campaign news that also has the quality of an echo chamber.  The formal name for it is meta-journalism, but a simple description is clearer: a pattern where journalists ostensibly covering a campaign actually spend most of their time talking to each other.  Exhibit A is surely the daily appearance of two reasonably good political reporters, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.  Their hour long program With All Due Respect (carried by Bloomberg Television and repeated on MSNBC) mostly features them in a studio interviewing each other on the day’s events. The same pattern holds for most of cable television’s major anchors, who save surprisingly little time in their lineups to interview candidates, voters, policy stakeholders (i.e. women who use Planned Parenthood services), and the rest of us who have a lot riding on 2016’s electoral outcome.

To be sure, the slow-motion train wreck of the GOP campaign is hard not to follow.  It’s as if we’ve turned over the running of Amtrak to a single grade school class. The impulse is to get out of the way and just watch. But of course that would not be safe or fair.  And so it is with the campaign. The sameness of the reporting represents lost opportunities for both the candidates and the American public to come to terms with the sometimes lethal choices that await those who will govern.  At this point we don’t even know what most of those difficult choices are.

comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu