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Why we vote for liars
Jack Shafer
OCT 9, 2012 20:43 UTC
elections | lying
The great fact-checking crusade of 2012 by FactCheck.org​, PolitiFact, The Fact Checker, CNN Fact Check, AP Fact Check, etc. has told us something very important about the workings of democracy that we already knew: Candidates bend the truth, distort the facts, fudge the numbers, deceive, delude, hoodwink, equivocate, misrepresent, and, yes, lie, as a matter of course.
Both major-party presidential candidates and their campaigns routinely lie, as a Time magazine cover story recently documented, although the publication gave Mitt Romney’s campaign top honors for lying more frequently and more brazenly. Time is not alone in its assessment: Romney also leads Barack Obama in the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker “Pinocchio” sweepstakes. But the lies will continue until Nov. 6, after which the chief mission left to the checkers will be to determine whether the winner was a bigger liar than the loser.
The candidates lie about each other, they lie about themselves, they lie about issues they know intimately, and they lie about issues they barely understand. Of Romney, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank writes today that the candidate has changed, reversed and obliterated his views so many times that “Whatever Romney’s positions were, they are no longer.”
If either presidential candidate met you, he’d tell you a lie within 15 seconds of shaking your hand, and if he knew he were going to meet your mother, he’d invent a special set of lies for her. Politicians lie not because they’re wicked – though some are – but because they’ve learned that political markets rarely reward honest campaigners. Say what you will about Ralph Nader and H. Ross Perot, but they ran relatively honest campaigns on the issues, and the voters rejected them. The political market spoke many years ago and continues to speak: Telling the truth is not great for campaigns – and if it were, more people would be doing it.
The one presidential candidate in recent memory to win the White House posing as a truth teller was Jimmy Carter, who famously promised early in his campaign: “I’ll never tell a lie” and “I’ll never knowingly make a misstatement of fact” as president. These promises drew instant fire from the press, most notably Steven Brill, who flayed him in a March 1976 Harper’s piece titled “Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies” (subscription required). Carter, who told no fewer lies than the average candidate, paid a political price for his promise, as everyone turned up their radar. “By saying that he would never tell a lie, Carter decided for himself that that’s going to be his standard,” said Alan Baron, George McGovern’s press secretary. “Well, fine, let’s hold him to it.” As soon as they could, voters replaced the non-lying liar with Ronald Reagan, a man so smooth even he didn’t know when he was lying.
Some of the lies the candidates tell are innocuous and are not held against them, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman write in their 2003 book, The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories that Shape the Political World. For example, “It’s great to be in Kansas City” is a completely acceptable lie, as is the platitude, “Nothing is more important to me than the future of our children,” Jamieson and Waldman write. Nor do voters care much if candidates claim to have “led the fight” for a piece of legislation if all they did was vote for it or sign it. Moving up the ladder of lying, candidates rarely are forced to pay a political price when they butcher the truth, even in presidential debates. ”You can say anything you want during a debate and 80 million people hear it,” said Vice President George H.W. Bush’s press secretary Peter Teeley in 1984, adding a “so what?” to the fact that reporters might document a candidate’s debate lies. ”Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000.”
Campaigns can survive the most blatant political lies, but candidates must be careful not to lie about themselves – or even appear to lie about themselves, as Jamieson and Waldman demonstrate in a long chapter about Al Gore’s image problems. Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet or to have discovered Love Canal. He did, however, falsely claim during the 1988 presidential contest to have gotten “a bunch of people indicted and sent to jail” while working as a reporter. Voters demand authenticity in their presidential candidates, even if the authenticity is fake, as was George W. Bush’s just-folks manner. To lie about an issue is to be a politician. To lie about a corporation is to be a public relation executive. To lie about a legal matter is to be a lawyer. To lie about international power relations is to be a diplomat. But to lie about who you are is to be a hypocrite, and voters despise hypocrites.
The telling of durable, convincing lies signals to voters that a candidate possesses the political skills to run the Executive Branch. “In American politics today, the ability to lie convincingly has come to be considered an almost prima facie qualification for holding high office,” Eric Alterman writes in When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences​. More in sadness than in anger, Alterman beats up on Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan for their presidential lies. So much of governance is about deception, bluff, and double-dealing.
Voters especially don’t mind if their presidential candidate tells a lie that appears to repudiate the party’s most sacred principles. For instance, in the first of the 2012 presidential debates, Mitt Romney claimed to be for economic regulation. “Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation,” said Romney. Few Romney supporters flinched at their man’s endorsement of government intervention into business, because they knew he knew his lie was designed to make himself look palatable to easily duped Democrats and independents. If they’ve hung with him this long, Romney supporters know that his presidential campaign has been one long lie – first to convince the Republican Party that he was an honest conservative and now to convince voters in the general election that he’s a devoted moderate.
The pervasiveness of campaign lies tells us something we’d rather not acknowledge, at least not publicly: On many issues, voters prefer lies to the truth. That’s because the truth about the economy, the future of Social Security and Medicare, immigration, the war in Afghanistan, taxes, the budget, the deficit, and the national debt is too dismal to contemplate. As long as voters cast their votes for candidates who make them feel better, candidates will continue to lie. And to win.
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I’m an honest man only because my memory isn’t good enough to remember all of my lies. Send your lies to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and fact-check my Twitter feed at your own peril. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: Pencils in the colors of the Italian flag with the head of Pinocchio are displayed for sale in Rome, July 23, 2010.  REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
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The 0.3 percent hysteria
Jack Shafer
OCT 5, 2012 23:17 UTC
bureau of labor statistics | elections | statistics
When was the last time the inhabitants of wonkville got so hot over a federal statistic dropping three-tenths of a percent?
This morning – after the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly jobs report stating that the unemployment rate had fallen from 8.1 percent in August to 7.8 percent in September – everybody started shouting about the numbers. President Barack Obama used them as evidence of economic progress, challenger Mitt Romney swatted them aside and scoffed that this “is not what a real recovery looks like,” and Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric (and current Reuters Opinion contributor) tweeted that Obama’s “Chicago guys” had fudged the encouraging numbers to make up for the poor performance of their boss in the Oct. 3 debate. This prompted the proprietors at @PuckBuddys to tweet, “Truthers, Birthers and now Welchers.”
Ezra Klein, the mayor of wonkville, rushed to defend the integrity of the numbers in his Washington Post blog, pointing to a Mar. 9, 2012, Post story about the secret-agent measures taken by the BLS statisticians to prevent tampering with the data or the results. Computers: encrypted and locked. Office windows: papered over. Confidentiality agreements: signed each morning. Emails and phone calls from unknowns: unanswered during the eight days of lockdown preceding the job report release. Visitors: none permitted without security clearance. Trash cans: not emptied by custodians during the period.
Helping Klein repel the doubters were Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis – ”I’m insulted when I hear that, because we have a very professional civil service,” she said on CNBC – and Keith Hall, former Bureau of Labor Statistics chief under President George W. Bush, whose position was summarized in a Wall Street Journal blog item titled “Impossible to Manipulate Labor Survey Data – Former BLS Head.” Welch’s most prominent allies were Tea Party inspiration Rick Santelli, who implied on CNBC that the numbers were rigged, and Monica Crowley, who sarcastically tweeted: ”the rate miraculously drops to 7.8%. Ahem.”
But as Megan McArdle pointed out today at the Daily Beast, even if you believed that the Bureau of Labor Statistics was capable of such a number-inventing conspiracy, the subtle swing in the employment numbers would be too vague to build a conspiracy from. They neither vindicate Obama’s economic policies nor refute them. It would be like breaking into a bank and stealing just the pennies. On the other hand, just because Obama hasn’t played games with BLS numbers doesn’t mean it’s impossible for him or another president or politician to manipulate data to political advantage. Back in 2004, the New Yorker‘s James Surowiecki, no member of the tin-foil-hat crowd, accused President George W. Bush of futzing with hallowed government numbers. He wrote:
Statistical expediency and fiscal obfuscation have become hallmarks of this White House. In the past three years, the Bush Administration has had the Bureau of Labor Statistics stop reporting mass layoffs. It shortened the traditional span of budget projections from ten years to five, which allowed it to hide the long-term costs of its tax cuts. It commissioned a report on the aging of the baby boomers, then quashed it because it projected deficits as far as the eye could see. The Administration declined to offer cost estimates or to budget money for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A recent report from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers included an unaccountably optimistic job-growth forecast, evidently guided by the Administration’s desire to claim that it will have created jobs. And a few weeks ago the Treasury Department put civil servants to work—at Tom DeLay’s request—evaluating a tax proposal identical to John Kerry’s, then issued a press release saying that the proposal would raise taxes on “hardworking individuals.”
Such statistical shenanigans may fall just shy of the cooked-books charges being flung today, and Surowiecki doesn’t even claim that they are common, maintaining that White Houses have traditionally kept their thumbs off the scale, and “good economics has trumped politics.” (Disclosure: Surowiecki is a friend whom I edited a couple of times at Slate.) But Bush exceptionalism – if his behavior was genuinely exceptional – should make skeptics of every consumer of government data.
It’s worth noting that the Bureau of Labor Statistics owes its origin to “two decades of advocacy by labor organizations that wanted government help in publicizing and improving the growing industrial labor force.” That’s not Jack Welch howling. It’s from the opening page of The First Hundred Years of the Bureau of Labor Statistics by historians Joseph P. Goldberg and William T. Moye and published in 1985 by the BLS. (Here’s the PDF. It’s big.)
The first state to establish a bureau of labor statistics was Massachusetts in 1869. Organized labor agitated in the states and at the federal level for similar agencies. The labor movement’s leaders believed that the collection of federal statistics would provide them with a path to political power, and said so. Testifying before Congress in 1883, labor leader Samuel Gompers spelled out that sentiment. The bureau, he said, would educate members of Congress about “the condition of our industries, our production, and our consumption, and what could be done by law to improve both [sic].”
Thanks to labor’s prolonged politicking, the bureau was established in 1884 after overcoming opposition from Southern legislators. The statutory mission of the BLS was to “collect information upon the subject of labor, its relation to capital, the hours of labor and the earning of laboring men and women, and the means of promoting their material, social, intellectual and moral prosperity.” If you can’t smell the politics in that passage, you need sinus surgery.
What the bureau’s early proponents made overt, its current supporters make covert. Governments can pretend that they are like research institutions or universities, neutrally scouring the universe for valuable data that will lead to knowledge and enlightenment. But the data sweeps and number crunchings commissioned by government are almost always political in nature, intended to justify some government action or inaction. That goes for the numbers produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Pentagon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Transportation, and all the other federal, state and local appendages.
Rare is the government data set that results in a diminution of government power or does not start a political fight, as today’s job numbers did. If you didn’t get your fill of contention today, check back for the rematch on Friday, Nov. 2, four days before the election, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s next monthly job numbers come out.
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Wouldn’t it be great if the plural of anecdote was data? Send anecdotes and data to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com​. I would so love Jack Welch to follow my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: A yardstick measures the depth of rising water in Butte LaRose, Louisiana, May 19, 2011.  REUTERS/Lee Celano
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Why we can’t stop watching the stupid presidential debates
Jack Shafer
SEP 28, 2012 22:30 UTC
2012 | barack obama | debates | elections | mitt romney
The 2012 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates, a four-part miniseries, will debut on televisions and computer screens around the world on Oct. 3 and continue weekly through the month. The program will feature presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in three episodes, and their understudies, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, in one.
I can’t promise excitement or even enlightenment: As viewers of The 2008 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates and its antecedents will recall, the events resemble 90-minute quiz shows in which there are no correct answers, just strong opinions. We come to the debates expecting dramatic oratory and political persuasion, but don’t even get a spritz of hot air. That’s because the debates are primarily designed to unite, not divide.
Highly formatted to begin with, this year’s debates will be even more highly formatted, as Elizabeth Flock reported last week in U.S. News & World Report. The Commission on Presidential Debates – the cutout the two major parties have been using to run the debates since 1988 – has for the first time issued cheat sheets to the candidates listing what topics will be up for debate in their first meeting: the economy, healthcare, the role of government and governing. This will make the study and rehearsal sessions, in which the candidates spend hours practicing their debate sound bites, a lot easier.
As usual, the commission’s debate rules are limiting enough to be called stringent. Open Debates, a non-profit advocacy that wants the debates released from the clutches of the Democrats and Republicans, complains of how “dreary” the events have become, comparing them at their worst to a joint press conference. In the first debate, each topic segment will run 15 minutes (there will be three “economy” segments). Moderator Jim Lehrer will begin each topic set with a question that the candidates get two minutes to answer, and at evening’s end both contestants will get two minutes for a closing statement.
Veteran debate moderator Gwen Ifill notes in the Washington Post that the debates don’t have much of an effect on the presidential election. “Gallup polls going back decades show precious little shift in established voter trends before and after debates,” she writes. Nor does anyone say much of enduring consequence, as Time magazine inadvertently showed with a recent video slideshow of “Top 10 Memorable Debate Moments.” None of the moments cited – Ford’s gaffe, Quayle’s Kennedy pandering, Gore’s body language, etc. – really changed anything.
Yet the debates still play a vital role in what anthropologist James R. McLeod liked to call the “ritual sociodrama” of the presidential campaign. During the primaries, candidates avoid acting presidential as they spew “powerful rhetoric of unity, disunity, order, anarchy, and chaos.” They don’t just throw mud – they irrigate and excavate whole new mud fields and construct new mud-delivery systems for the annihilation of their opponents in televised events that are called debates but more resemble rhetorical food fights. To pinch another of McLeod’s slick phrases, the high-sticking and peak emotion of the primaries render the nation “disarticulated politically.”
Then come the nominating conventions of the major parties, which exist nowadays mostly to rubber-stamp the primary rumbles. The conventions reduce the noise of the Republican and Democratic choruses to two soloists, which theoretically frees them to isolate their verbal firepower on each other. But by the time the debates arrive, the candidates generally refrain from howling at their opponent. Instead, they seek to appear more measured, more statesmanlike, more presidential. They take advantage of the conflict-averse debate rules to croon easy-listening music past one another and into the ears of the television audience. For them, the debates are twinned press conferences and twinned infomercials.
Whether by design or accident, the presidential debates commence the “reintegration” (a last hat-tip to McLeod) of the national political psyche. Rhetoric runs cooler as the parties creep toward the center. Although the television networks, newspapers and the Web obsess about what the two candidates say in the debates, the battle is largely visual, according to academics Mark Goodman, Mark Gring and Brian Anderson, co-authors of a 2007 paper about the visual style of “town hall” presidential debates. The debates are as much about what you don’t see as what you do. Goodman, Gring and Anderson write:
Naturally, campaign staffs and the growing ranks of for-hire media consultants have tried to maximize the candidate’s visual impression by: avoiding unconventional clothing and hairstyles; training the candidate to address camera lenses as well as the audience; featuring the candidate’s family in campaign appearances; and a host of other now-standard considerations. Understandably, the candidate’s visible actions in debates, that is, his or her non-verbal style, has become ever more vital in determining quality of performance in those important encounters.
None of these stylistic moves are designed to deepen the voters’ political understanding or convey anything substantive about the candidates’ characters and values, add the authors. Newscasts rely on similar visual tricks to hold and mold audiences, making TV anchors reluctant to critique the visual hocus-pocus of the debates. If Goodman, Gring and Anderson are right – and I think they are – the best, and in many ways the intended, way to watch the presidential debates is with the sound off.
The political reintegration continues on election night, as the network anchors deliberately soothe viewers and lend legitimacy to the vote-taking and -counting process. “Winners are larger than life heroes, losers are gallant and noble; democracy works in the United States as it does nowhere else in the world,” write Marc Howard Ross and Richard Joslyn about the election night telecast in a Winter 1988 paper in Polity. “Network commentators not only tell us who won and lost different contests, but also offer potent messages about political conflict, system legitimacy, regime norms, and citizen roles.”
The bunting-mad spectacle of the January inauguration seals the deal as solid as any Westminster Abbey coronation. At the risk of exhausting your anthropological patience, our election rituals cool even the hottest contests. By the end of the 1968, 1972, 1980 and 2004 election cycles, the nation seemed prepared to go to war with itself over the presidential election. But by Inauguration Day, the rituals have persuaded most – even the opposition – that the man taking the oath has a legitimate claim to the presidency. But disturb the ritual’s continuity – I’m thinking here of the Bush-Gore election interruptus in 2000 – and the magic vaporizes. A dozen years later Democrats are still howling about how Bush and the Supreme Court stole that election.
Part theatrical performance, part quiz show, part fencing match, part transition ceremony, the words and gestures of the 2012 debates will be picked over with tweezers by the TV commentariat as soon as the candidates’ microphones go dead. They’ll struggle to locate the momentum and import in the 90 minutes just passed, they’ll scrutinize the gaffes and they’ll even rate the moderator. Like all widely observed rituals and ceremonies – baptisms, weddings, funerals, the World Cup – the presidential debates open themselves to mockery. But the public craving for pageants and contests will not be stilled by our contempt and sarcasm. We can crack the debates’ code, but we can’t rewrite it.
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PHOTO: U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) (L) and Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) (R) interact during their presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 15, 2008. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn
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Banning quote approval sounds good, but can it work?
Jack Shafer
SEP 21, 2012 22:53 UTC
New York Times | quote approval
New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters rolled a stink bomb into the church of journalism in July with his Page One story revelation about the widespread practice of “quote approval.” It turns out that reporters from many top news outlets covering the White House and the Obama and Romney campaigns – including the Times, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Reuters, Vanity Fair, and others – regularly allow Obama and Romney staffers and strategists to dictate terms for interviews that permit them to rewrite or even spike things they’ve said.

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather called the quote approval “a jaw-dropping turn in journalism” and a “Faustian bargain,” warning that it could make reporters “an operative arm of the administration or campaign they are covering.” Edward Wasserman, incoming dean of the University of California at Berkeley journalism school told NPR’s On the Media that it reduced an interview to “a press release.” Others compared the practice to “quote doctoring,” and editors at National Journal, Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers and the Washington Examiner promptly banned it from their pages.
Yesterday, after an influential column by David Carr, one of its own, and a prodding blog item by Margaret Sullivan, its new public editor, the Times issued its own prohibition against after-the-fact “quote approval.”
Erik Wemple spotted the very visible loophole in the Times policy shortly after it was promulgated and drove his Washington Post blog through it. All reporters need do, explained Wemple, is call White House sources to talk about an issue; wait for the sources to agree to a “background” interview; agree to attribute the quotations to a “White House official;” then ask the source for additional quotations on the record. As Wemple notes, this arrangement would not violate the new Times policy, which appears to ban quote approval only as a precondition for an interview.
Thus, quote approval is reborn!
As best as I can tell, quote approval thrives in the places where reporters vastly outnumber sources, creating a scarcity arrangement that sources can – and do – capitalize on. Scarce sources in such places as the White House, Capitol Hill, some federal agencies, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and the entertainment industry, and on Wall Street have the necessary leverage to extract concessions out of the reporters covering them. In recent years, with the rise of a zillion websites covering politics, business, entertainment and tech, reporters on these beats have become more plentiful, making sources ever more scarce.
Reporters who work on beats where sources outnumber them have the easiest time waving off ridiculous sourcing demands. When scarce sources leave their Washington cocoons for flyover country, they’re often shocked at the way outside-the-Beltway reporters treat them. My favorite anecdote dates to 2004, when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz traveled to the Plains states to observe a military ceremony and give a speech in Omaha, Nebraska. His office invited reporters from the Kansas City Star, the Des Moines Register, the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World-Herald to chat with the deputy secretary, and his public affairs officer began the session by asking that Wolfowitz comments be attributed to a “senior Defense Department official.” The reporters rebelled. One explained that the interview would be of no professional value if he couldn’t name Wolfowitz. Another said there was no point to the charade of attributing the remarks to a senior Defense Department official as Wolfowitz was the only senior Defense Department official in the region. Wolfowitz folded, agreeing to stay on the record unless he felt pressed to say something on background, which he did a couple of times to no real consequence, according to the reporters.
I can’t recall having ever agreed to quote approval in order to win an interview – but mine is a narrow boast. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked. I’ve agreed to read back quotations – especially when reporting on technical, scientific, medical or legal topics where thin slices of fact loom fat in the greater argument. But that’s to serve accuracy, not to help a source disavow something he said on the record and wished he hadn’t. (I resist going off the record, but that’s another column.)
While many inside and outside the Times praised the development of a formal and public policy to repel control-freak sources, in practice it’s hard to imagine it making much difference. Besides, there are a dozen other ways sources can make reporters dance to their tune. Freeze them out. Give them kibble while giving other reporters sirloin. Talk ill of them to other potential sources. Sabotage them socially, which spells devastation for a certain breed of Washington reporter. Cooperate with the junior beat reporter to undermine the senior beat reporter on the same publication. Let other reporters know what scoops he’s working on.
Washington’s permanent government plays the long game and can discipline even the most valiant reporter. For example, over the past decade, editors at the nation’s top newspapers (Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the like) have been making all the right noises about reducing anonymous sources from the page, and yet these anonymice continue to thrive, notably in Washington stories. But at least readers can independently count the number of anonymous sources being used. While the Times‘s new policy on quote approval looks good on paper, readers will have no way to judge whether it’s being rigorously enforced. To my ears, it sounds as if the Times hasn’t solved the problem as much as put all of its reporters on double-secret probation.
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Willard Milhous Romney
Jack Shafer
SEP 19, 2012 21:06 UTC
elections | mitt romney
Be careful about writing Mitt Romney’s political obituary before they fill him with formaldehyde and pour him into his mahogany condo. Like that other frequent Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, Romney has a remarkable talent for stepping into it, sinking and soiling himself rotten as he extricates himself. Romney’s latest stumble — complaining to rich donors about the “47 percent,” which was Webcast by Mother Jones yesterday — would bury a less tenacious candidate. But Romney’s talent for powering past his embarrassments ranks up there with that of Nixon, a champion of compartmentalization who believed that as long as he had a pulse he had a chance of winning the White House.
Like Nixon, Romney is not only at war with the Democrats but also with the base of his own party, which has never been convinced that he’s a true conservative. Both Nixon and Romney have dressed their pragmatist campaigns in conservative clothing, but with the exception of their cultural biases against sex, drugs and pornography — and their instinctual disrespect for disrespecters of authority — none of it has ever rung true. The stink of inauthenticity wafts so heavily from both that their early biographers have incorporated it into the titles of their books, as historian David Greenberg pointed out to me in an interview. The Real Romney, published this year, and 1960′s The Real Nixon, both posit that what you see is not what you get with these two men.
“Romney is the most patently phony presidential candidate since Nixon,” says Greenberg, author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. “The most talented politicians express a natural ease, by backslapping or chit-chatting with people. Nixon and Romney don’t have that skill, but they try anyway.” The failures of Nixon and Romney to connect, to seem “real” or to appear likable have resulted in both doubling their efforts to be personable and human, making even the sympathetic cringe.
The camera hated Nixon, and it showed. In 1968, Roger Ailes, now head of Fox News Channel, worked on the Nixon campaign as a consultant and improved the candidate’s stagecraft. Yet the camera still magnified Nixon’s internal discontent. Romney, a more handsome version of Nixon, doesn’t sweat or glower when facing the lens, but press encounters tend to give him the yips, jamming his efforts to pave a communications groove with voters. Like Nixon, Romney reflexively despises the press, which he blamed for the disaster that was his July foreign policy trip.
Had either Nixon or Romney grounded himself in ideology — conservative or otherwise — realness wouldn’t be as conspicuous a problem. They’d be dull politicians, reciting from their catechisms like Rick Santorum, if you seek a flesh-and-blood example. But say what you will, nobody ever doubted whether Santorum had an anchor, and nobody will ever write a book titled The Real Santorum. Pragmatists like Nixon and Romney, who have few core beliefs beyond the personal, require staff pollsters and strategists to tell them where they should be on issues.
Liberal writers such as Paul Krugman and Jonathan Chait would have you believe that the Mother Jones video reveals the true, inner Romney, somebody who regards the poor, the sick and the retired as grifters. If only that were true. He doesn’t even have that conviction. As a pragmatist politician speaking to wealthy donors behind closed doors, Romney is content to say what they want to hear: That the 47 percent are parasites and the donors are exalted beings.
Romney owes much of his early campaign reputation as an unprincipled waffling weasel to his major accomplishment as governor of Massachusetts, Romneycare. Romney distanced himself from the measure during the primaries, as the Washington Post reported in early August, but once he secured the nomination, his campaign cited the legislation as a political plus, evidence that he had the skills to “reform” the healthcare industry. This sort of calculated duplicity brings us back to Nixon, who campaigned as a conservative but who once in the White House supported the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, wage and price controls, Amtrak, affirmative action and other codicils to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Obviously, every politician over-flatters supporters, makes voodoo dolls out of reporters and reverses himself. Nixon had a pretty good excuse for his flip-floppery: He cared primarily about foreign policy and would do almost anything to avoid domestic policy battles. But what does Romney really care about? He’s been running for president non-stop, since 2007, and I still haven’t a clue.
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Here’s a good roundup of conservatives who denounced Romney’s 47 percent riff. If you understand the inner Romney, riff me at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com or let me riff you at my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: This 1967 Lincoln-Continental convertible parade car, used by former U.S. President Richard Nixon, waits to be sold at the 34th annual Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction at Westworld in Scottsdale, Arizona, January 28, 2005. REUTERS/Jeff Topping
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USA Today’s new suit doesn’t fit
Jack Shafer
SEP 14, 2012 23:29 UTC
USA Today in 1982
I have a theory – one that I’m certain I’ve stolen – that it was Al Neuharth and not Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web – with the creation of USA Today. Page One of the paper’s first issue, Sept. 15, 1982, contains so many of the visual motifs that would become common on homepages a decade later when the Web really got rolling that you’ve got to suppress the urge to click and scroll when looking at it today. And swipe! USA Today founder Neuharth may have simultaneously anticipated the tablet, too.
Gannett’s ballyhooed redesigned USA Today, which hit newsstands today, 30 years after that first issue, still looks to my eyes like a proto-Web page. Breaking news (keyed to pages inside) still runs down the left rail like an RSS feed; a simple grid still serves a populist mix of news and entertainment that not even the Huffington Post has improved on; and the infographic “USA Snapshot,” which spawned a billion imitators in both print and online, still anchors the bottom left corner. The only casualty from the original Page One design appears to be the colorful weather “ear,” although it’s been dead for many years.
Early Web designers probably didn’t look directly at USA Today‘s front page for homepage inspiration. It’s more likely that squeezed by the technological limitations of the early Web era – a limited selection of fonts, narrow bandwidth, slow graphics cards and small displays – Web designers responded by reducing homepages to grids that were easily downloadable and easily digestible. Form followed function in both the case of USA Today and the early Web, with no room for gratuitous design.
If the original USA Today design anticipated the digital future, it did so by translating into print the electronic vision of television news, which put a similar premium on presenting the news with breathtaking brevity. Like network news, USA Today was national and was bounced off satellites. Like network news, USA Today boasted lots of color photography, something the New York Times didn’t get around to reproducing for another 15 years. Like TV, it tried to tell stories in pictures. Even its street boxes looked like big-tube TVs. And like network news, USA Today pointed itself at the national audience’s great middle, and connected.
USA Today‘s staff took abuse for the paper’s shortcomings – which were real and many – for about a decade, even as other newspapers imitated its weather and sports coverage, color reproduction and design. But then came 1989 and the post-Neuharth era, at which point the newspaper’s editors stiffened USA Today‘s soft editorial posture. But by 1998, the changes were so dramatic that American Journalism Review was praising USA Today on its many journalistic merits. Anybody who has called it “McPaper” in the past 15 years hasn’t been paying attention.
Today’s USA Today
Last redesigned in 2000, when the web size of the paper was reduced from 54 inches to 50 inches, the new USA Today wants to shout modernity, what with its circle logo and the day’s date printed in starlog* fashion (09.14.12) on Page One. But the new paper has all the graphical punch of a supermarket flyer, with every column-inch competing for your eyeball. If everything is graphically important, if everything is colorful – as the new USA Today would have it – then nothing is. If the redesigned USA Today were a meal, it would be a 2-quart jar of sliced jalapeños. If it were a wrestling move, it would be a full nelson. (The Web version of USA Today, which is also being redesigned and is previewed here, looks handsome, like Flipboard only better. But that’s another column.)
Newspaper redesigns end up mattering less to readers than they do to editors or advertisers. I’ve never met anybody who stopped or started reading a newspaper based on its redesign, and for all its cacophony, the new USA Today isn’t likely to inspire or anger anybody breathing the air outside the media bubble. According to a vaguely worded passage in AdAge: ”The print redesign is characterized by more color and some new elements in part meant to appeal to advertisers looking for a type of print sponsorship.” That may sound frightening to some ears, but the willingness of newspapers to cut their hems to satisfy Madison Avenue is as old as newspapers. Remember, it wasn’t uncommon 150 years ago for American newspapers to have nothing but ads on Page One.
Like many 30-year-olds, USA Today seems to be suffering a bit of a fashion crisis and has overdressed itself with every stitch in the wardrobe, when all it needed to do was tweak its nameplate and section heads to lend itself the look of the new. Luckily, no newspaper redesign was ever set in stone. Because the execution of a redesign is always as important as the redesign itself, the paper’s designers probably have the leeway they need to stop the paper from screaming at me. I’d like that, seeing as I don’t own a pair of noise-canceling headphones.
******
*I read that “starlog” quip someplace today and would like to attribute it, but after a furious search I can’t find it. If you know who said it first, send the URL to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com or shoot it at my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
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Reinventing video news for your smartphone
Jack Shafer
SEP 12, 2012 16:39 UTC
huffington post | ken lerer | smartphones | Web video
Sooner or later, every expensive thing finds itself supplanted by some technology-driven thing that’s cheaper: Ivory billiard balls were replaced by plastic, silk by nylon, mainframes by desktops, your local recording studio by GarageBand, and so on. Ivory, silk, mainframes, prestigious recording studios, and other luxury-class goods survive, but cost-cutting technological advances have steered them into niches.
That’s precisely where Web video news producers intend to steer broadcast and cable news – into niches. And they’ve got a shot at it. In 1980, CNN began exploiting the falling costs of broadcast gear and satellite time. By decade’s end the upstart network had not only equaled the traditional broadcasters but exceeded them, becoming the vital source for breaking news. Fox News Channel and MSNBC provided the next lesson by adapting talk-radio culture to cable news. Now, falling bandwidth prices, incredibly cheap video gear and ubiquitous smartphones  – 45 percent of American adults own one – lend similar economic advantages to those looking to displace cable.
One new news-and-information prospector is Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer, who this week bestowed a name on the cable-news slayer he has been assembling in his skunk works since last spring: NowThisNews, shooting for a late-October launch. As AllThingsD reporter Peter Kafka reports, NowThisNews will chart a different path than its fellow video pioneers at HuffPost Live, namely 12-hour blocks of talk-show chat. Lerer promises “short video pieces that will hopefully be very viral and very social, one at a time.” His general manager, Eason Jordan, a CNN veteran, told Kafka: “There’s an abundance of talk. We intend to report the news.” As distribution partner, Lerer and company have enlisted click-whores (and I use that term with complete admiration) at BuzzFeed, which will also assist in the creation of NowThisNews’s clips.
The Web-news thicket that NowThisNews is entering is so densely populated, an army of hackers launching a thousand DDoS attacks couldn’t clear it. Practically every legacy media operation (online services, TV networks, local TV and radio stations, daily newspapers and wire services) boasts a Web-news adjunct that both repackages old reports and streams original material. Native-to-the-Web operations such as Slate, Talking Points Memo, SB Nation, Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze TV, SB Nation, and others have aggressively applied their news-info talents to the screen. Viewers who get Al Jazeera (or other foreign broadcasters) on their cable systems can often stream it on the Web or download an app for their smartphone.
The baby steps of HuffPost Live, which debuted in mid-August, demonstrate the challenges of making watchable video. At its worst, HuffPost Live resembles a “karaoke version of what’s on cable,” as my Reuters colleague Sam Jacobs puts it. Its telegenic, young anchor/hosts mouth journalistic lyrics to match the backing tracks of their interview subjects, who appear in the flesh or via Webcam. It’s such a bush league venture right now that Monday, when American Idol judge Randy Jackson dropped by HuffPost Live to talk about diabetes, he volunteered that the music that preceded his segment was “low level, really cheap, inexperienced, student film music that you found extremely free somewhere – not just free, extremely free, like somebody please take this music!”
If the first iteration of HuffPost Live tends toward the cheap and inexperienced, its guests don’t seem to mind. In its first month its hosts have chatted with journalists Matt Taibbi and Thomas Friedman, activists Sandra Fluke and Erin Brockovich, politicians Michael Bloomberg and Rand Paul, actors Jennifer Beals and John Cusack (which the New York Observer called “painfully long”), fusion artists Eliot Spitzer and Michael Moore, and other notables.
I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent watching HuffPost Live. It reminds me too much of my early encounters with MTV, which joined the cable-TV family a year after CNN. I’d watch two or three disappointing videos but still stay tuned to MTV thinking that the next one might be good. So it is with the HuffPost interview segments, which tend to run about 30 minutes. I wiggle in my seat, hoping that the host will intercept this guest – or one of the HuffPost “community members” – before they unfurl their usual mattresses of words and put me to sleep.
The open-mic amateurishness of HuffPost Live reminds us how hard it is to fill a screen with watchable video chat. Among the prerequisites are good writers, deft and clever hosts who know how to guide a conversation, guests whose freshness date hasn’t expired and production values that match the content. Setting Randy Jackson’s slam aside for a moment, I’d say that HuffPost Live’s production values lead its content by a furlong or two right now.
In its early incarnation, HuffPost Live tries too hard to fill the Oprah place in your head, where a discussion of whether wives should take their husbands’ names can flow into a chat about whether stripping is a form of art or even into a debate about the Federal Reserve. Like Oprah, HuffPost Live isn’t that demanding of your attention, and can be absorbed as you multitask over lunch, ironing or Pilates. If you treasure your sanity, I don’t recommend you stay too long on the site: A whole afternoon of HuffPost Live feels like watching a 2-by-4 of taffy melt and drip down the side of a hot oven. I’d like to say that HuffPost Live would be twice as good half as long, but that gives the site’s producer false encouragement. Twice as good one-sixth as long is more like it.
It’s always easier to give a good review to something that hasn’t launched than one that has, but doesn’t NowThisNews’s bigger aspirations to break news into smaller, more digestible units produced in an artisanal way a couple of times a day sound more appealing? Doesn’t that sound like something you’d like to tote on your smartphone?
The smartphone, I predict, is where the new news-and-information battle will be fought. For this reason, I would be surprised if Arianna Huffington (who must never be underestimated​) shrank HuffPost Live to fit inside a smartphone after NowThisNews launches. But the speed with which HuffPost Live ports itself to phones or the degree to which NowThisNews (and other news sites) devotes itself to the smaller medium will probably be determined by advertiser enthusiasm, which I expect to soar as Madison Avenue comes to respect its demographics. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s pollsters, 66 percent of those between 18 and 29 years of age own a smartphone, as do 68 percent of households earning $75,000 or more. Unlike a television, a PC, or even a tablet, a smartphone lends itself to portable companionship that can be enjoyed everywhere but the shower. The smartphone commands attention in a way that big screens rarely do these days. Serving smartphone-size media chunks for intense consumption between longer, more casual, big-screen meals might be the most efficient way to build audience for a new news-and-information venue. Don’t be ivory. Be plastic. Don’t be silk. Be nylon.
My advice for big news thinkers everywhere: Think small.
******
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Looking for truth in all the wrong places
Jack Shafer
AUG 31, 2012 21:37 UTC
elections | fact-checking
If you’ve kept your shirt dry while canoeing the rivers of our current presidential campaign, it’s likely that you’ve been skilled enough to avoid the logjams and snags of “dishonesty” and “lies” that the parties and press have flung into the water. While it’s true that politicians and their campaigns and their ads routinely lie — I hear no disagreement on that point, so I’ll continue — never have politicians and the press expressed such indignation at campaign exaggerations, fibs and falsehoods.
For example, after Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) gave his acceptance speech this week at the Republican National Convention, the press corps fact-checkers instantly took hammers and tweezers to his address. “The Most Dishonest Convention Speech … Ever?” asked Jonathan Cohn in the liberal New Republic, but the non-partisan press accused Ryan of having misled listeners and taken “factual shortcuts,” too. The Week counted up the 15 euphemisms for “lying” the press (partisan and non-partisan) used to describe the speech.
I suspect the growing sensitivity to political lies has less to do with more lying by more politicians than it does with the growth of the fact-checking industry over the last decade or so. Every campaign speech, big or small, every campaign ad, local or national, every fund-raising letter is fodder for the modern fact-checkers, who have multiplied in the pages of our newspapers like termites in breeding season: FactCheck.org (the granddaddy of these sites, from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which got started in the mid-2000s) and the later arrivals PolitiFact (Tampa Bay Times), The Fact Checker (Washington Post), AP Fact Check (Associated Press) and CNN Fact Check, all of which run regular fact checks. Other news organizations muster ad hoc journalistic militias to grade the truth-value of political speech. Today’s New York Times piece, “Facts Take a Beating in Acceptance Speeches,” does that for the Republican National Convention.
As much as I applaud the fact-checker profession — it’s vital for politicians to know that we know that they know they’re lying — the enterprise is a mug’s game. Of course politicians and their campaigns lie. Of course they continue to lie even when called out. If you think otherwise, you’re looking for truth in all the wrong places.
Politicians engage in deliberative rhetoric on the stump, in legislative speeches and in campaign commercials. Their primary goal is to convince audiences that their positions are right, and persuade them to vote, make campaign donations, echo their support, recruit additional supporters or take some other action. Truth-telling would matter a lot more to politicians if it were as effective in persuading people as truth-bending. Plus, trapping the truth and serving it in a palatable form to an audience is damn hard, as any university professor can tell you. It’s easier and more effective for campaigns to trim, spice and cook facts to serve something tastier, even if they must brawl with the fact-checkers in the aftermath.
You might as well fact-check a sermon as fact-check a campaign speech. Neither are exercises in finding the truth. That doesn’t mean we can excuse political lies. Please take a mallet to Romney’s fallacious assertion that Obama ended work requirements for welfare and to the Obama campaign’s ad that misstated Romney’s views on abortion. I pair these two fact checks not just to declare moral equivalence between the two parties or candidates but to demonstrate that the mutual-aggression pacts that govern politics make futile the fact-checking machinations of journalists. Give them a million billion Pinocchios and they’ll still not behave. Remember, the Republican-on-Republican fact-action was hairier during the primaries, when more desperate candidates were in the race. See also the 2008 Democratic Party and Republican Party campaigns for presidential nominations, when most of the candidates were eager to say the least defensible things about their fellow party members if that gave them a better shot at the ticket. Like in 2008, when Mike Huckabee unveiled to the press a scurrilous 30-second attack ad calling Mitt Romney too dishonest to be president, but then, as a statement against gutter politics, vowed not to air it.
Journalists, even of the fact-checking variety, like to imagine they’re in the grandstands, watching and commenting on the action, when they’re actually part of the game. As the Washington Post reports today, far from deploring the process, the candidates enjoying gaming the fact-checkers to their advantage. “The Obama campaign has tasked one media officer to deal exclusively with fact checkers’ questions, and top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom often personally handles requests,” says the piece. Brooks Jackson, FactCheck.org director, who produced fact-check journalism for CNN during the 1992 presidential election, expresses his worries that campaigns have come to regard their head-butting with fact-checkers as a kind of badge of honor. It’s like raising a naughty kid who enjoys time-outs.
Fact-checking, explains the Post, is not for politicians but for voters. I suppose fact-checking would matter more to voters if they expected honesty from their politicians. But most don’t. Instead of vetted policy lectures, voters crave rhetoric that stirs their unfact-checked hearts. As long as the deception is honest, pointing in the direction they want to go, they’re all right with it.
******
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Why the Yahoos at Yahoo were wrong to fire David Chalian
Jack Shafer
AUG 30, 2012 16:33 UTC
david chalian | gaffes | yahoo
If you’re a journalist and you’ve ever said anything “inappropriate,” as David Chalian got caught doing yesterday — and you know you have — please step forward to be fired now.
Chalian, the Washington bureau chief for Yahoo News, ridiculed Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, during a Monday webcast from the Republican National Convention. It’s not uncommon for bureau chiefs, beat reporters or copy editors to verbally eviscerate politicians, corporate leaders, slumping sluggers or any other notable not in the room at the time, but they usually have the good sense to first check to see if a microphone is on. Chalian did not.
His topic was Hurricane Isaac, which was then bound for New Orleans, and he coached an unidentified guest on how to typify the Romneys:
“Feel free to say, ‘They’re not concerned at all. They are happy to have a party with black people drowning.’”
After NewsBusters.org posted the audio, Yahoo News counted to one and then fired Chalian.
Chalian, of course, was all apologies after his sacking, tweeting, “I am profoundly sorry for making an inappropriate and thoughtless joke.” The apology continued in a non-public Facebook posting, where he stated: “I was commenting on the challenge of staging a convention during a hurricane and about campaign optics. I have apologized to the Romney campaign, and I want to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Gov. and Mrs. Romney.”
Whatever a quip like “have a party with black people drowning” is, it’s not a joke. I suspect that the remarks conform closely to Chalian’s view of the Romneys as a callous couple and accurately represent the direction he hoped his guest would take. As newsroom denunciations go, it was pretty mild. I’ve heard much worse from reporters and editors in my time. I have little idea of what Chalian is really talking about when he rambles on about “campaign optics” other than to assume that he’s the sort of guy who when stuck in a hole thinks he’ll free himself by digging deeper.
Chalian, whom I’ve never met, smeared the red herring of a “joke” all over his comment because the journalistic orthodoxy to which he apparently subscribes maintains that news reporters and news editors must not have opinions, or if they do, they must not state them. He did the red herring smearing for his own sake, obviously, because he hopes to work in journalism again and appearances must be kept. Also, Chalian probably remains loyal to his Yahoo News colleagues and hopes to tamp down the furor so they won’t have to pay for his indiscretion. Of course, if Chalian worked the opinion side of the journalism supermarket, he’d probably find himself on the receiving end of a book contract. But that’s the topic of another column.
The New York Times‘s David Carr speculates today that platform profusion might have been to blame, at least in part, for Chalian’s gaffe, that “sometimes reporters fall into the crevices when trying to cross from one platform to the other.” Carr gives the examples of the broadcaster who got in trouble for a tweet, the radio journalist who got canned for something he said on cable, and the print reporter who was sent to the woodshed for smutty, disrespectful talk on TV about the president.
Carr might be right about unfamiliar platforms jamming the self-censoring capabilities of journalists (I think he’s not), but his piece sidesteps the issue of reporters holding such views in the first place. That’s the real point: Reporters and editors have opinions, and sometimes they’re going to express them, much to their embarrassment and to the horror of their bosses, who want to pretend that everybody on staff resembles Lady Justice blindfolded, holding a balance. Chalian’s crime wasn’t what he said. I’m sure that if he had made the same statement in front of his Yahoo News bosses, some would have nodded in agreement, and nobody would have laughed. His crime was rather where he said it, namely in public. The best reason to ban Chalian from voicing these particular Romney views is that he’s probably wrong.
If Yahoo News had a lick of sense, instead of firing Chalian it would have spanked him or demoted him or berated him in public for breaking the organization’s code — which appears to be “never say anything controversial that will discomfit us” — before suspending him. (I’m assuming that Yahoo News made the decision to cut off Chalian’s head on its own and not to assuage its video partner, ABC News. I hope I’m right.) If it had a barrel of sense, Yahoo News could explain to its readers something I think they should already know: that editors and reporters have opinions and that some of those opinions actually enhance the discovery and reporting of important news.
Proof that opinion-based journalism can break big stories can be found in recent issues of the Nation, Reason, the American Prospect, the National Review, Mother Jones, the Weekly Standard, the New Republic and the New Yorker. An equal claim can be made for the opinion work in the Washington Post Outlook section and the New York Times Sunday Review, the hundreds of opinionated books published each year (some by newspaper reporters!), and scores of opinionated websites. Like a good tip, a strong opinion can guide reporting toward the truth in a work of journalism. And you don’t necessarily have to subscribe to the opinions expressed in a piece to learn something, either.
Having an opinion, especially a stupid one, doesn’t entitle you to a job as a journalist. If a journalist’s boss wants him to smother the views he holds, that’s his prerogative, even if I think it’s wrong to do so. But in any case, I don’t think expressing a poorly considered view automatically disqualifies a journalist from keeping the job he already has. Don’t let Yahoo News’s sudden sacrifice of David Chalian by his bosses convince you that he’s an outlier, that everybody else at the organization possesses a blank slate for a brain. Chalian is the norm — and represents the now-silenced majority.
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Political conventions are useful. Really!
Jack Shafer
AUG 27, 2012 15:37 UTC
conventions | elections
Nobody will think less of you if you grunt and punt on this week’s Republican National Convention. Go ahead and scan the newspaper and Web accounts of the event if you must, but feel free to watch something else on TV. The same advice goes for the companion production by the Democratic Party in Charlotte next week. But whatever you do, don’t bemoan the attendance of 15,000 reporters trampling one another in their frenzied attempts to get a slice of the thin story, or complain about the wasted money sending them there.
The conventions are much better at generating newsworthy moments than you might think, as reporter Richard Wolf points out in this morning’s edition of USA Today. A defeated Ronald Reagan wowed the 1976 convention with a six-minute stemwinder that commenced his victorious 1980 campaign. State Senator Barack Obama “became the star of the 2004 Democratic convention” with his speech. Bill Clinton flopped in 1988 with his 33-minute Michael Dukakis nomination. To that list of notable convention addresses one must add Sarah Palin’s televangelist tour de force at the Republicans 2008 show, which in retrospect marked her political high point.
One way to reject the pseudo-eventness of the conventions is to pout, as ABC News veteran Ted Koppel did in 1996 after setting up at the Republican National Convention in San Diego. (That convention also attracted 15,000 from the press corps.) Koppel, who had broadcast his Nightline program from every convention since 1980, cried uncle on the second night. “There was a time when the national political conventions were news events of such complexity that they required the presence of thousands of journalists,” Koppel said on the air. “But not this year.” So he loaded up his Nightline TelePrompTer and went home, complaining that the convention had turned into an infomercial. “Nothing surprising has happened; nothing surprising is anticipated,” he added.
Nice try, Ted. But you can’t cancel a show by ignoring it. What Koppel failed to acknowledge is just because there’s scant payoff during the heavily scripted convention week doesn’t mean that a payoff never comes. Again, Wolf explains how the conventions allow reporters, working in the shadows, to get to know some of the future presidential candidates while the lights shine on this year’s ticket. A notebook filled with quotations from Governor Chris Christie or Governor Andrew Cuomo might not be newsworthy now, but the reportorial investment in two political comers will likely pay future dividends. Political reporters benefit from meeting campaign operatives and state and county political chairmen in the flesh and snatching up their business cards and Twitter handles, and this is the place to collect the complete set. Convention veteran Walter Shapiro argues this point adamantly today in CJR, maintaining that “there is no place better than a convention to begin to forge these bonds of mutual trust.”
What’s true of the conventions is true of the primaries: Yes, they’re heavily scripted and predictable. Yes, the news-to-blather ratio is huge. Yes, there are too many reporters chasing too little “news.” But that’s like saying that during a gold rush there are too many prospectors chasing too little ore. With that many folks pursuing a rare good, the likelihood of a jackpot being won increases. Perhaps we should be worrying that 150,000 reporters haven’t been assigned to the conventions to work the event as cultural anthropologists investigating the power of social ritual. There’s something spiritual about the faithful assembling every four years to pick a would-be king who jousts with another would-be king for the crown. At least an anthropologist could determine with authority whether or not the surplus of ritual has diluted the event of its spiritual force. Maybe that’s the reason that politicians like Mike Murphy pine for a convention decided, as if by magic, in a smoke-filled room by a political college of cardinals.
There’s talk over at the New York Times‘s “Room for Debate” page today  from journalists and campaign operatives about cutting the conventions down to one or two days or eliminating them altogether, and replacing them with some simple prime-time event. While that would improve the late-summer vacation scheduling of pols and journos, truncation would interrupt the information flow between delegates, between delegates and reporters, and between the party and viewers. Waste, not economy, is the hallmark of all ritual displays. Typically, the convention congeals the watery mess left behind by competing candidates into a coherent message for the party faithful to serve to voters. The balloon-dropping, speech-making, uplifting-documentary-film screening convention is also supposed to mark the last act in the two-year (or longer!) campaign drama — the autumn push toward Election Day. Erase the political convention if you want to, but what replacement could similarly stimulate the party faithful toward battle? Child sacrifice?
The threat of Hurricane Isaac forced the Republicans to trim a day — or maybe more – from their Tampa convention, forcing the parties to imagine new ways to package rituals that date back to the 1830s. Surely there’s a reality-show scripter out there with ideas on how to freshen the form for modern tastes, one who would still give reporters, delegates, and others a chance to swap lies in a way that’s televisible. All I know is that the national political convention has more life left in it than Nightline, which Koppel left in 2005 in another pout: ABC is replacing it with Jimmy Kimmel’s show, while rescheduling the news program into a late-night graveyard where it will surely die long before the televised 2016 conventions commence.
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Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist covering the press and politics.
ANY OPINIONS EXPRESSED HERE ARE THE AUTHOR’S OWN.
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