The medium and the message
Why is American political debate so lame?
The US comedian Jon Stewart recently made the headlines for calling CNN’s Tucker Carlson a ‘dick’ to his face, live on air (1). But this was not Janet Jackson at the Superbowl. Stewart had a serious point to make about the dire state of political debate in America, typified in the reluctance of either candidate to give direct answers during the presidential debates.
George W Bush and John Kerry seemed to have been prepped with about 10 different stock responses, and the task facing them was deciding which one to use. An AIDS question? That’ll be the healthcare issue. Cue Kerry speech on health insurance provision. The spontaneous cut-and-thrust of genuine debate was nowhere to be seen.
Stewart’s outburst came after an impassioned plea to the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire programme, a half-hour special on which the day’s issues are discussed by two presenters, one Democrat and one Republican. He argued that the programme was ‘hurting America’ by squandering the opportunity ‘to actually get politicians off their marketing and strategy’. The sight of a comedy star lecturing news presenters on journalistic values while they attempted to lower the tone (Carlson: ‘Wait. I thought you were going to be funny. Come on. Be funny.’) was richly ironic, as Stewart pointed out. It was one of those occasions where, as the anthropologist James C Scott puts it, the ‘hidden transcript’ becomes public (2). What had been said by many people in private had been aired in the public, to the antagonists’ faces, and the ‘public transcript’, ie, the fiction that television debates contain genuine argument, had been breached.
As an English student who recently moved to the USA, I’m struck by the low standard of argument in American politics. After all, it’s not as if there aren’t real issues at stake. To take just one example, Bush refused to deny that he would like to overturn Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalised abortion; if he were re-elected, women might be forced to undergo backstreet abortions again.
The media are at least partly to blame. Rupert Murdoch’s ‘Fox News’ has to be seen to be believed, so to speak, and the Sinclair Media Group’s attempt to show an anti-Kerry documentary as news was shameless (3). But the problems with the US media go deeper than that.
The New York Times is a case in point. Many consider it the pinnacle of good journalistic practice; in fact, it is often surprisingly bad. It has some minor vices, like its infuriating page setting, just as it has its virtues, such as its emphasis on foreign news. But its major vice is a potentially fatal one. It has a faulty idea of objectivity: objectivity by numbers, one might call it. In essence, its method is not to attempt to inform the reader about the fact of the matter in question, but rather to try and present a level playing field on which the sides can compete equally.
This might sound harmless enough, and even admirable; but it can be dangerous. The notion of fairness at work here is a statistical one; each side gets the same number of bullets, and can choose to fire them wherever and however it wants. So Bush saying that Kerry wants American defence policy to be subject to the veto of foreign capitals (4) gets the same amount and neutrality of coverage as Kerry pointing out that that was not what he said. Genuinely objective journalism would have to report Bush’s claims as wilful misrepresentation, because that is what they are, objectively. As it is, a lie and a truth are considered equal, because ‘it’s all just opinion’.
This mantra creates an incentive for mendacity, because the truth of any question is assumed to be somewhere in the middle of the two positions. It is not just an opinion that Kerry will take away people’s Bibles if he’s elected: it’s a lie (5). Yet by reporting such a lie as an opinion, a paper makes it seem as if it contains a grain of truth, or that its truth depends on one’s perspective. The idea seems to be that these lies are only exposed as such on the opinion pages of a paper – so the news stories are where the opinions are, and the opinion pieces where the facts are. Go figure.
A journalist’s objectivity does not consist in him staying out of his own article, because every quotation he uses represents a choice based on values. Instead, objectivity consists in his being ready to test his own values and prejudices against the facts, to find himself wrong. This involves trying to find the facts and report them. It would not have taken much of this to discover that al-Qaeda were unlikely to be in bed with Saddam, give the latter’s brutal secularism; upon that discovery, vice president Dick Cheney should have been humiliated long before any official government report on the matter.
It should be remembered that US newspapers are in many ways better than their British equivalents; this is not an opportunity for crass jingoism. Nonetheless, it remains the case that a healthy democracy requires a truth-seeking Fourth Estate as a check upon the government. As such, papers like the New York Times are failing the American people.
But the media are far from the sole culprits. In terms of serious debate, there has been little to report. The political elite, as Stewart pointed out, would prefer to stick with marketing and strategy. This is especially true of the Republicans, who, frankly, have few honest arguments to make at all, because the facts continually betray them. For instance, there are good arguments against tax-and-spend, but Bush can’t make them, since that’s exactly what he’s done (if one considers the gigantic deficit as a bill that will have to be paid by someone – even if simply by an inflation tax or a reduction in social security benefits).
Kerry has some good arguments, and has deployed them to good effect, especially during the first debate. But he has lacked the courage to trust the electorate with complexity. By the end of the third debate, his nine or 10 stock points had begun to lose their shine, and he began to appear like a weary salesman, tiring both himself and his audience with his spiel. The basic problem is the myth of the ‘floating voter’: this fakir is credited with extraordinary properties, apparently being both the key to the election and an utter moron, such that every argument has to be simplified and repeated for his benefit.
It seems not to have occurred to the strategists in either party that people don’t much like being patronised; nor that the 50 per cent or so of the electorate who do not vote might be engaged by arguments that credit them with a degree of intelligence. And so serious argument finds itself banished from the mantras of electioneering gurus.
John Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire was a cry for help. Despite the fact that it echoed the private cries of so many, it seems likely to land on deaf ears in the media and the political elite. If Kerry fails to win tomorrow, the Democrats may recognise the importance of answering that call.
Jonny Thakkar is a PhD student at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought.
(1) See the John Stewart ‘Crossfire’ transcript
(2) See ‘Domination and the Arts of Resistance’, by James C Scott
(3) ‘Anti-Kerry film ignites new row’, BBC News, 11 October 2004
(4) ‘Bush Says Kerry’s Remarks Show Weakness On National Security’, New York Times, October 2nd 2004
(5) ‘Republican Admit Mailing Campaign Literature Saying Liberals Will Ban The Bible’, New York Times, 24 September 2004
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