Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Sign of the Times

I've long since derided the age of the 24 hour news networks. There are no less than 5 on my cable at home, and I'm sure there are more that I don't know about. The problem isn't just that there isn't enough news that merits 120+ hours per day of coverage. It's the fact that each one of these channels are on the air for one reason - to make their parent companies money. It's not about being fair nor balanced, it's about getting viewers and billing advertisers. This is why people like Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, and the deplorable Nancy Grace all have jobs.

Over the course of the last 4 years, the Internet has become more pervasive in people's lives. It provides anyone with a mouthpiece, regardless of their actual qualifications. And, unfortunately, because people have a tendency to give anything in print additional credence sites like The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post garner some level of merit for the general populous.

When combined, the Internet and the 24 hour news networks have created a rather disgusting combination that political campaigns have now feed upon. Take one recent incident when John McCain was asked how many houses he owned. I'm going to set aside why how many houses someone owns has anything to do with their abilities to run the nation. Instead I just want to focus on the answer and the reaction.

The answer was, "I think — I'll have my staff get to you. It's condominiums where — I'll have them get to you." Again, I'm not going to defend or attack McCain's answer.[1] But Barack Obama's camp sure went to town on it, releasing an ad that day. That same day. Not the following week. Not a couple days later. Later that afternoon. And as if that wasn't crazy enough, McCain's camp had a rebuttal out by close of business that same day as well.

This election has devolved into the following steps:

  1. Wait for your opponent's camp to say something that can easily be misconstrued or can be taken as a personal attack
  2. Release an ad attacking the opponent
  3. Send someone to every news station to talk about how bad the opponent is for saying such a thing
  4. (Optional) Talk about how offended you are and wait for an apology
  5. Accuse the opponent of dirty politics and throw around phrases like "Swift boat attacks" if desired
  6. Accuse the opponent of distracting America from the real issues
  7. Opponent will respond by using the same tactics starting with Step 2
  8. Lather, rinse, repeat

Today, every underling of each camp has a microphone in their face at all times, where every comment is made public, and every single slight misstatement, regardless of how true the statement might be when actually taken in context (and remember - context is everything), is used as fodder for attack. The campaigns then make a huge deal out of this, which the media (traditional and Internet) feeds off of and helps fan the flames of, because stories like this are sensationalistic. And outside of sex, nothing else sells like a sensationalized story.

The general population also feeds off of this. In today's society, we don't seem to have time for explanation or nuance. I remember being at dinner with friends just after the McCain story broke, and a friend mentioned to me, "Hey - did you hear McCain say he doesn't know how many houses he has?" Sigh. That's not what he said. But alas, that's not important. All that matters is the spin, getting it down to one sentence, putting it out in the media, and getting the public talking about that.

And this is where we are. Gotcha politics.

The problem of course is we as a nation are facing some serious crises. I don't know if this is the most pivotal time ever, but I have to think it ranks up there. But when I flip on CNN, I don't hear discussion about energy policy. Or health care. Or technology. Or education. Or terrorism. Or national security. Or our two wars. Or the economy.


Because which sounds better in a 10 second sound bite:

McCain doesn't know how many houses he owns


John McCain is calling for National Commission on Workplace Flexibility and Choice. This Commission would bring together a bi-partisan set of leaders representing workers, small and large employers, labor, and academics.  The Commission would make recommendations to the President on how modernizing our nation’s labor laws and training programs can help workers better balance the demands of their job with family life and to enable workers to more easily transition between jobs.

That's what I thought. And if anyone is interested, the latter was taken from John McCain's website, and not from a transcript on MSNBC.

I wish I could say that I see this getting better. But alas, US politics has a rich tradition of personal attacks. Even the 1828 election between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams reached amazing levels, with Adams accusing Jackson of being an adulterer (and his wife of being a bigamist), and Jackson accusing Adams of being a pimp.

But there is one thing we can do. Don't buy into gotcha politics. Remember what's important. It's not misstatements or personal attacks. It's actual policy ideas and where one of these two men are going to lead this nation.

Focus on that. You may have to dig a little harder. The media certainly isn't going to make it easy to find it, but the information is out there. Watch the debates. And do yourself (and your country) a favor - make an informed decision about who you think will best lead this country, and not who can make the best sound bites.

[1]- Before anyone comments with their opinion on McCain and his 3,627 houses (or however many he owns), save your breath fingers. I really don't care. And, frankly, if that's what your left with out of reading the above then you've completely missed my point. I'm not defending John McCain. I could have just as easily used Barack's lipstick on a pig comment to make my point. The McCain house comment was just the first one that came to my mind.

No comments: