Monday, September 30, 2013

Short Attention Span Theater

Some time ago I actually cited Talking Points Memo as a potential successor to I.F. Stone's Weekly, in a bloggospheric formula.  The reason was that JMM had just had his little mini coup crowd sourcing information that led to a better national understanding of a huge national scandal: the firing of the US Attorneys under Bush.  But since then he's proved me wrong--he has no interest in putting in the time, energy, or thought to actually reporting anything novel. The entire format of the front page and of his editor's viewpoint is clickbait.  I don't have any quarrel with that. A man's got to make a living and who am I to break his rice bowl?  If he is content to run an endless stream of one sentence clips from speeches, or to repurpose this morning's post with a new picture and a slightly sexier headline in the afternoon, who am I to criticize?  But, at the same time, there is something truly destructive about this approach.  For years we've all criticized the NYT and CNN and other major media players for failing to give their readers enough historic background and context to understand the significance of the events they are covering.  This is even more the case with TPM. The short, clippy, format they have chosen to cover, for example, the shutdown or the debt ceiling fight is trivializing and highly deceptive.

Take this:

With a government shutdown appearing imminent Monday, a Republican congressman expressed frustration with the conservative wing of his party.
"We're pretty much out of options at this point," Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) said, as quoted by the Wall Street Journal."They're all giddy about it," he said in reference to Republicans most unwilling to compromise. "You know who benefits the most here from a shutdown? The Democrats benefit and they know that."
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) also admitted that Republicans will be damaged politically in the event of a government shutdown. Meanwhile, a poll released Monday showed that Americans will be more inclined to blame congressional Republicans for a shutdown than President Barack Obama.

What are we supposed to conclude from this little tidbit? It is actually the current headline piece on the site labeled "GOP Rep Exasperated..."  Think Progress has a similar roundup of startlingly unsympathetic things various Republicans have said about the showdown leading  Jed Lewison at Kos  to moan  "If these guys want to be seen as anything less than complete hypocrites, they need to reverse course and agree to approve a clean funding bill."

We seem to be having some trouble grasping the central fact of our political system: people say one thing and do another.  What is the point of quoting people saying things for public consumption when we know for a fact that what governs their actual votes in the legislative crucible are entirely different considerations? JMM is just giving his readers what he thinks they want, or will click on at any rate, which is a constantly updated stream of information-like-quotes that are utterly context free.  Is there a cost to this style of reportage? I think there is--when you read down into the comment thread at a place like Kos, where to do them credit people at least care about politics and have their hearts in the right place, you see almost as much confusion and misinformation as at a Fox site.  Because people assume that statements stand for actual thought, or that public positions can give you a clue as to private negotiations.  They can't. All 11 of the GOP reps who are quoted over at Think Progress as thinking that the shut down is bad politics and bad theater voted to send Boehner's amended, dirty CR back to the Senate. Why? Because voting is a team sport and none of these guys has the slightest intention of standing out in a crowd and taking the heat for an individual decision.  You can't understand politics unless you grasp this central fact: none of these guys are willing to stick their head out of the crowd unless, like Ted Cruz, they've made a conscious decision that they may reap more benefit by being an outlier than by following the other lemmings off the cliff.


Cross Posted at No More Mr. Nice Blog