I have traditionally thought of myself as a politics junkie, and grew up talking politics with my parents at the dinner table, usually with the news on. But as an adult how much I pay attention to national politics has varied. I’ve often alternated between stretches of obsessively watching the news and the coverage and the punditry, and stretches of tuning out. I have been mostly tuned out since 2008, likely the longest stretch of my life. I think the problem is that I actually like government, and how politics influences the process of governing a country. Every time I turn on the news I already know what the story is.
The media colludes in this. What Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere” is most of the mainstream media’s idée fixe that the only way to be credible is to be objective. The trick with objectivity is that it’s much easier to write a story that says both sides are extreme than it is to appear to choose sides. Rosen is eloquent on this, and Paul Krugman is really, really angry about this.
I see it as partly a lingering side-effect of Watergate. One result of that is that cynicism about the media became fashionable. But what I see as the more corrosive side-effect is that the media decided that they were part of the story. Enterprising young reporters seem to dream of being Woodward and Bernstein, but most of the scandals since have been either much more tawdry or much worse. Woodward has slowly, imperceptibly, become the establishment. His studies of the Bush Administration seem to be classics of the genre you get when you trade access for lines in print–I read as much as I could stand of either Bush At War or Plan of Attack (about fifty pages as I recall), and gave up when I realized it was a series of administration talking points with Woodward’s name on them. And yes, The War Within was critical, but not critical on the scale that was deserved.
There’s a train wreck looming in Washington this week about the debt ceiling, and as I write it looks dubious that there will be a deal. I am sure the cable news networks will be covering it wall to wall, but I am also sure there will be about nine parts punditry to one part actual fact. And I’m sure CNN will leave it there with great frequency. Which means my choices are Fox News (not gonna happen) and MSNBC, which cleverly built itself a niche as the liberal response to Fox…and then decided that they needed to be more balanced; plus, institutionally they’re more interested in horse races than government. Al Jazeera English actually does a better job with being balanced (in the “accurate” and “factual” senses of that word) than any of the American networks, mostly because they really don’t care if their press passes get revoked.
The press is a filter, theoretically designed to help manage information in the public interest. Practically it manages information in its own interest, which is understandable. But now politics seems to be almost exclusively about managing the filter rather than running the country. That’s always been true to a certain extent, but I have never seen it so bad.
I am a news junkie. I do not trust the news right now.