May 10, 2004

Rotted Through

I'm usually a big Mother Jones fan, softie for a last bastion of socially conscious investigative reporting. Then, in an article on blogging by George Packer, I find this brilliant observation (emphasis added):

...Thanks to September 11, this happens to be one of those rare years when a real election will take place. By "real," I mean an election in which the stakes are genuinely high, the differences between the candidates far-reaching, the consequences for the country and the world potentially huge. 1932 was a real election year; so were 1968 and 1980. We haven't had one since Reagan trounced Carter. Especially during the Clinton years, with the Cold War over and the economy flush, politics grew more and more into a spectacle of personalities and gossip-mongering, a trend both reflected and furthered by the political journalism of those years. Until recently, Frank Rich, a former drama critic, wrote an op-ed column for the Times largely devoted to reviewing politics as entertainment. ...

Thank you for playing, Mr. Packer. We have a lovely booby prize by the door, don't let it hit you on the backside as you head out. But that's the sentiment. We haven't been having 'real' elections because journalist have been covering them as entertainment, and somehow according to Packer, that fault lies in the elections.

One of the most infuriating moments in political coverage of the 2002 midterms was when Norah O'Donnell of MSNBC stated on election day or thereabouts that there were "no important issues" in the election. Those were her words, preserved indelibly as example number one for me of why the mainstream media is bad for our health. No less than control of the Senate was at stake, and a battle was being fought between domestic and international concerns, between militarism and cooler heads. But it all seemed commonplace to the reporters at MSNBC.

The statement by Packer above isn't being picked on solely because he says that blogs made the same mistakes in predicting the Democratic primaries as mainstream reporters, and are therefore pointless. No, Mr. Packer, it's because your compatriots in journalism have created an opening for blogs by their trivialization of every election that the pack of you couldn't put together an interesting enough narrative for. You lament the death of the "story," and don't see how the obsession with politics-as-favorite-story-type has killed political reporting.

No Cold War? Bored now. Economic growth everywhere? Bored now. No sex or drug scandals? Bored now. Silly white collar crimes? Bored now. Intellectual property rights? Bored now.

Like a troupe of lazy, jaded, whiny jet-setters, no issue can move them unless it gives good picture and killer sound bites. Blood and guts, bombs and glory, 'character' issues, silly gaffes and lurid gossip. Only the 'good things' get the politjourno's blood pumping. Things that can convey importance without having to be explained or researched. They talk with the powerful, rub elbows with nationally televised people, spend time at the center of the action, and know much more about politics than the average person. Which is where the disconnect is.

They forget that it's their job to convey that specialized knowledge back out to the average person. To spread it around a little. The reporter may have heard the same stump speech so many times they could give it themselves. They crave to hear about an issue that hasn't been thrashed to death in the circles of their conversation. And they ignore the vast gaping hole between the public's level of knowledge and their threshold of interest.

And for that reason, Orcinus' media revolt manifesto is a very timely document indeed. (Not least because a poster in the comments pointed out the Mother Jones article.) It seems like a good starting point for finding a direction for blogging that could help turn the ship around. And with reporters this clueless working at *Mother Jones*, for love of God, we need every hand.

Posted by natasha at May 10, 2004 02:23 AM | Media | TrackBack(3) | Technorati links |

I agree, natasha. David's manifesto is definitely timely. And it none too soon. We are in a world of hurt.

Posted by: Mary at May 10, 2004 02:59 AM