Despite the moans and breast-beating, the political press, I've come to believe, is a pretty good market mechanism. Its widely perceived flaws are actually strengths that serve the public well. While it's a fair bet something close to half the public will be at least mildly unhappy with the choice the other half makes in tomorrow's presidential contest, that's not to say the selection is bad, or harmful or even overly influenced by the dreaded beast of spin. Quite the opposite: Thanks to my colleagues in the political media--opinionizers, pure reporters, and the increasingly prevalent hybrids--I think we will end up making the right choice, however unsavory it may seem.
This rosy view contrasts, I know, with the more cynical opinion favored by elites, so I feel compelled to explain.
The greatest change in presidential campaigning is information ubiquity. It's common to acknowledge the death of party machines and the rise of the empowered electorate, but I'm not sure any but the most seasoned political reporters or addicted political junkies understand how profound this change has been.
We all know the days when Ohio fat cat Marcus A. Hannah and his cronies could hand-pick William McKinley for the presidency are long gone, and that a form of direct democracy, the primary system, has arisen in his stead. But a similar evolution has taken place in the political media. Once dominated by a handful of anointed king makers--the columnist Walter Lippmann, Time's Hugh Sidey, in more recent years Johnny Apple of The New York Times--it's been flooded by new entrants.
They dissect candidates' biographies until no pecadillo is uncovered, or at least unrumored. They debate the meaning of obscure lines dug from the bowels of chicken barbecues and the Congressional Record like medieval monks mooting doctrine. Their opinions, conclusions, and facts flow across a three dimensional communications matrix--encompassing broad-
cast, print and Internet; local, national and international; trickle-down and well-up--so that by the time We The People are called upon to make a decision, we know all. And I mean all.
Is there anyone who doesn't know Albert Gore Jr. is more than a bit feckless and unlikable? Could there be a soul unaware George W. Bush, however pleasant, is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier? Could anyone not understand that Pat Buchanan deliberately aims appeals at racists and Jew-haters, the better to keep his profile (and post-election speaking opportunities) high? That Pat barely cracks 1% in polls shows his message is clear, understood and irksome (and ought to give CNN pause when the quadrennial question of rehiring Mr. Buchanan for "Crossfire" returns).
That's what I mean by a market mechanism. Our choice tomorrow will be informed by knowledge--knowledge shaken loose by the political media.
There are those who bemoan this state of affairs, and yearn for a return (slightly modified, perhaps) to the days of secrecy, the period when (as Lippmann had it in his classic, "Public Opinion") an elite press conspired with an enlightened leadership to deliver to the people what we needed to know, what they deemed we should know.
Without such edifying collaboration, so the argument goes, we will never again get a Franklin Roosevelt, capable of leading us through world wars and terrible choices.
The arrogance of that notion notwithstanding, it's also historical hogwash. We knew Ronald Reagan was lazier and less detail-oriented than Jimmy Carter, but we elected him and got tax reform and, shortly after his term concluded, the end of the Soviet Union. We knew Bill Clinton was a prevaricating sex fiend, but we elected him as a moderate and got welfare and budget reform in the bargain. During the era of the backroom and colluding media, meanwhile, we got many more Hardings than Lincolns.
So whatever happens tomorrow--however depressed you become--please don't blame the media. With all the information in the ether, any fault is with ourselves.
Copyright November 2000, Crain Communications Inc.