Monday, March 17, 2008

How political journalism helps to dumb down political discourse - Some self-reinforcing perverse mechanisms explained

A brief but nicely pointed explication by Chris Dillow at his unfailingly intelligent and thoughtful Stumbling and Mumbling blog. Frankly, I think the flattering (albeit qualified) remarks about the superior virtues of "markets" in the second-to-last paragraph introduce an unnecessary red herring. But leaving that paragraph aside, what he says here is right and significant ... with some caveats.

=> Chris Dillow quotes from a Financial Times piece by Gideon Rachman, "The real problem with Power" (i.e., Samantha Power, who recently got caught in a journalistic/political minefield and had to resign from her position with the Obama campaign). Rachman's piece is worth reading in full (below).

--Jeff Weintraub
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Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling)
March 13, 2008
Openness and selection in politics

Discussing Samantha Power's resignation, Gideon Rachman says:
In an ideal world, politicians and their advisers would be able to talk openly about their real thoughts on trade or Iraq – and admit to doubts or disagreements. That would be an adult way to conduct debates. But it would also be politically impossible. In the real world, “off the record” is the next best thing. If this journalistic convention were simply abolished, political debate would become even more cautious, simplistic and dishonest.
This takes for granted precisely what should be questioned. Why should adult debate be politically impossible?

A big part of the blame for this lies with Gideon's fellow journalists. They present doubt and disagreement as indecisiveness, incompetence and splits - not as what they are, which is a mature acknowledgement of the complexity of human affairs.

And they have a vested interest in off the record briefings. These give the select journalists who have privileged access an informational edge, which keeps them in work. If politics were wholly open, they'd have to think and research for themselves - which would put a lot of them on the dole.

This is why so many of us hold the MSM in such contempt. It acts as a filter, kicking out of politics good intelligent people like Ms Power whilst promoting vacuous managerialists who can play by the rules.

[JW: For those of you not familiar with this standard acronym, "MSM" stands for "mainstream media." The contempt expressed here is largely deserved. But I feel compelled to add that when it comes to "gotcha" coverage of politics, intolerance for nuance and complexity, ridicule for honest expressions of doubt and uncertainty, and all the other tendencies that undermine possibilities for adult public debate and systematically punish any public figures who go even momentarily off-message ... well, most of the blogosphere tends to be even worse than the MSM.]

In this sense, the MSM acts in the opposite way to markets. The great virtue of markets is that they (sometimes) weed out idiots and incompetents; firms who sell over-priced crap eventually go bust.

But thanks to the MSM, the opposite happens in politics; it's those who offer quality who get booted out.
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Financial Times
March 10, 2008
The real problem with Power
By Gideon Rachman

Some people are too open for their own good. That was certainly how I felt after interviewing Samantha Power last week.

I had expected her, as a senior adviser on foreign policy to Barack Obama, to be ultra-careful and to weigh every word. Not at all. She was open and amusing, willing to give long discursive answers on controversial subjects, happy to admit to doubts about her abilities to do a government job. I was charmed. But I left the lunch wondering whether she was really cut out for politics.

My doubts were swiftly and brutally borne out. Ms Power was on an exhausting book tour in Britain and giving scores of interviews. In one of them, with The Scotsman newspaper, she made an off-the-record comment suggesting Hillary Clinton, Mr Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, was a “monster”. Within hours she was forced to resign from the Obama campaign.

The fate of Ms Power says something dispiriting about modern politics. All presidential candidates routinely say that they want politics to be honest and open. But they all know that too much honesty is fatal. I am not thinking about heat-of-the-moment comments about political opponents being “monsters”. Most people in politics say such things (and worse) about their rivals – but it is a mistake to do it in public.

The trouble is that similar taboos apply just as strongly to the discussion of policy. Another current line of attack on Ms Power is that, in her marathon tour of indiscreet interviews, she told the BBC’s Hardtalk programme that Mr Obama’s talk of withdrawing all US troops from Iraq within 16 months is a “best-case scenario” – and that any new president would have to look at the situation in Iraq as it stood in January 2009.

She said similar things to me over lunch. I did not find this shocking. I would have been genuinely shocked if she had been unaware of the complexities of getting out of Iraq – and the need for flexibility and an open mind. Like her erstwhile boss, Mr Obama, Ms Power had opposed the Iraq war from the start. But she has also written a book about genocide, and is keenly aware of the need to think about the consequences of withdrawal for the population. The only surprise was that she was willing to engage in a discussion of this sort in an on-the-record interview.

The Clinton campaign is much more disciplined. But its foreign policy people are also perfectly aware that Mrs Clinton is committed to politically expedient positions that might prove less than ideal once she was in office. A Clinton adviser told me earlier this year that all the leading Democratic candidates had “pretty terrible” positions on trade – by which he meant that they were too protectionist. When I suggested that similar taboos and double-talk applied to Middle East policy, he just shrugged and laughed. That subject was – apparently – too controversial even to touch.

Bloggers often argue that it is appalling that the “mainstream media” should allow candidates and their advisers to qualify their public positions in private. By this yardstick, Ms Power deserved what she got – and I should name the Clinton adviser who went off-message on trade. By the same logic, foreign-policy seminars conducted under “Chatham House rules” – when officials are assured that they are talking off the record – should all be scrapped. Say it in public or shut up.

The bloggers have a point. In an ideal world, politicians and their advisers would be able to talk openly about their real thoughts on trade or Iraq – and admit to doubts or disagreements. That would be an adult way to conduct debates. But it would also be politically impossible.

In the real world, “off the record” is the next best thing. If this journalistic convention were simply abolished, political debate would become even more cautious, simplistic and dishonest. Everybody would suffer. People involved in politics would not be able to test and discuss their ideas with anyone outside a closed circle of political loyalists. And journalists and the public would be even less well informed about the real thinking of politicians.

Much of my discussion with Ms Power focused on these issues. How easy would she find it to reconcile the idealism of her books with serving in government? How could she adapt her free-wheeling style to the demands of politics?

In retrospect, I think she seemed to half anticipate her downfall. She and Mr Obama are close and I knew that, although still in her 30s, she was tipped for a very senior role in an Obama administration. I asked what sort of a job she might get. A practised politician would have trotted out the standard reply: “I would be happy to serve in any capacity. But it’s too soon to be thinking about that. Blah, blah, blah.”

Ms Power tried to answer the question: “I think I would like the sort of job where you can work away in obscurity to try and improve things, without being caught up in the political maelstrom,” she mused.

At the end of our lunch, she offered to sign a copy of her new book, a long and admiring biography of Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a top United Nations official who was killed in Iraq. I replied: “Yes, that would be nice. If you become secretary of state, I can auction it on Ebay.” I slightly regretted my comment, which seemed a little churlish – but Ms Power had the good grace to laugh.

When she had left the restaurant, I studied the inscription. It read: “In the hope that the gap between promise and practice won’t be so great.”

gideon.rachman@ft.com
Post and read comments at Gideon Rachman’s blog

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