Winter 1994, Volume 2, Number 1

Media Transforms citizens into spectators

When National Public Radio commentator Daniel Schorr analyzed U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reichs call for cuts in corporate welfare, he revealed a deep flaw in the practice of Washington journalism. Reich stated Nov. 22 that if the Republican Congress intends to cut welfare, then all forms of welfare should be on the table. Reich estimated that corporate America receives as much as $200 billion in subsidies and tax breaks.

Instead of examining the merit of Reichs proposal, Schorr limited his analysis to what he perceived as the strategy and tactics behind the Labor Secretarys comments. He reduced Reichs proposal to a tactical maneuver calculated to gain ground lost to Republicans in the mid-term elections. Schorrs failure to analyze the possible merits of Reichs statement at face value implied that its newsworthiness lay elsewhere. In effect, Schorr implied that Reich didnt mean what he said.

By applying this Machiavellian spin to the Labor Secretarys comments, Schorr gave credence to the Republicans fall campaign slogan: Liberals will say anything and do anything to get elected. Schorr did not intentionally bias his analysis in favor of Republicans. Indeed, all he did was follow a prevalent journalistic convention practiced by Washingtons media insiders. Schorrs language treated politics as spectator sport.

In the shifting power relations of an athletic contest, whos ahead and whos behind is paramount. Analysis of the contestants tactics and strategies deepens spectators enjoyment of the game. When Miami Dolphin quartback Dan Marino engineered a come-from-behind victory Nov. 27 over the New York Jets capped off by a trick play that suckered a rookie Jet defensive back the New York Times wrote: The word awesome has been applied to lesser comebacks. Marino was roundly celebrated for his immaculate deception.

But government was not meant to be a spectator sport. Treating every policy utterance as a tool of manipulation sends a loud and clear message to the American electorate: politicians never say what they believe, and their actions and utterances are mainly selfish and only distantly related to the public good. All that matters is whos ahead and whos behind, and what tactics are being used to win the contest. Journalistic conventions that work well for John Madden and Pat Summeralls coverage of NFL football miss the mark in the world of politics. Nothing is at stake in a game of football beyond the game itself, and the comments of insider analysts have no effect on the outcome of the contest.

By contrast, the insinuation of deviousness and deception has a different effect in the world of politics. While insiders and afficianados may appreciate successful Machiavellian behavior, the public is turned off by such self-serving tactics. Not surprisingly, media coverage which reduces every policy statement and proposal to this lowest common denominator has a corrosive effect on the body politic. Chronic cynicism, anger and apathy result.

Curiously, hard-line conservatives seem to be exempt from this form of cynical media scrutiny. From Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich, conserv-atives are more often than not granted the integrity of their convictions. Even Jesse Helms, no matter how outrageous his statements, is viewed quite simply as speaking his mind. Indeed, Newt Gingrich seems to have concluded that mean-spirited speech carries with it the aura of deeply held conviction, an aura that's highly resistant to media scrutiny. By instinct or calculation, Gingrich knew that his election-eve insinuation that Democrats were ultimately responsible for the Union, S.C. mothers murder of her two children would receive widespread media coverage and would resonate with a certain class of voters.

Meanwhile, any Democratic rebuttals would clash with the general sense of public outrage and disillusionment surrounding the Union, S.C. tragedy. Could it be that the center in American politics has shifted so far right for so long that any politician on the right has only to hunker down and lob rhetorical grenades, knowing that media conventions limit the ability of journalists to hold them accountable?

Meanwhile, any left-of-center politician who achieves national office presumably by moving toward the center is by definition viewed with suspicion. Thus every action and utterance is presented as a product of cold calculation lacking any real passion or conviction. Take the recently passed Crime Bill for example. The crime prevention package including funding for midnight basketball for inner-city youth received strong support earlier in the year from a majority of both Democrats and Republicans.

But when the bill came to a final vote, the previously supportive Republicans retreated under orders from Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, who sensed an opportunity to further undermine a Democratic president. Democrats complained that the Republican leadership had moved the goalposts. The Republicans, meanwhile, cried Pork!

Buttressed by conservative radios fax and spin ability to keep Congress phone lines humming, the pork charge grabbed the headlines. The deadline pressure of horse race coverage prevented journalists from focusing on the now ancient history of prior Republican support for the Crime Bill. Instead, Washington media focused on the clock running out on Clinton and the Democrats as mid-term elections approached. Clinton was faced with the prospect of a devastating loss. When he compromised to get the bill passed, pundits blasted him for his lack of conviction.

Not only does covering politics as spectator sport advantage one ideology over another, it also places citizens in the meaningless role of spectators. As outsiders, citizens therefore need the guidance of insider analysts, who as beneficiaries of the media system have little incentive to violate its conventions by discussing how media coverage affects outcomes. Covering politics as a spectator sport enables journalists to maintain the illusion of objective, detached reporting. The obsession with tactics and strategy allows the Daniel Schorrs of Washington to maintain the fiction that they dont make news, they just report it.

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