Campaign discourse on a downhill plunge

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Once more, it’s campaign season, and the air is filled with blue smoke and vitriol. Once more, we are reminded that democratic discourse is quickly turning into a din of inequity.

Our democracy is defined by how we elect our leaders. But today’s campaigns have veered dangerously off course. They thrive on distortions, distractions and misdirection. Attack ads from outside groups are unhinged from candidate and party accountability. The press seems unable or unwilling to focus on the relevant. Broadcast and cable punditry is unconstrained by reason or reality. Protests and demonstrations are largely unattached to clear purpose or target.

We used to decry the politics of the personal. Now we are dealing with the politics of the piranha.

Those vying for office yield meekly to the idea that to raise their voice they must lower their standards. Their campaigns have to be louder, nastier, quicker off the mark, constantly on the attack. They rarely, if ever, confront the irresponsibility, untruthfulness or unfairness of those speaking on their behalf.

The candidates’ handlers and surrogates target the other guy’s character rather than engage his ideas. They lace their messages with slur and smear. They dodge debates as long as possible and render their formats as tepid as possible. On the campaign trial, they arrange love-in rallies, where all the participants are carefully screened to make sure there are no negative thoughts, let alone tough questions. They counsel their guys to duck press conferences or interviews and instead sit down for soft talk with Oprah, Regis, Dr. Phil and Letterman.

Shut off from meaningful communications with the candidates, the press dithers. Working journalists are forced to compete with entertainment on one side and the campaign circus on the other. They wind up settling for stories about process, speculation and the horse race. From time to time, they pluck irrelevancies and trivialities from the campaign muck and exclaim over it for days on end. For expert commentary, they turn to celebrities and extremists. Increasingly, they give in to spectacle over substance.

To compound the journalists’ pain, every word they utter is parsed by media critics, political-party war rooms and a gaggle of Internet bloggers with a partisan beef and an electronic bullhorn. Already stung by a string of recent embarrassments, such as the fabricated stories and sources at The New York Times and USA TODAY, they stumble into even more trouble, as CBS News did with the documents debacle.

As an example of just how desperate and distracted the press has become, consider how much air time and shoe leather has been devoted to finding the source of the apparently faked documents used in the “60 Minutes” report on President Bush’s National Guard service. Now compare that with how quickly the press and pundits tired of the search for the source of the forged documents about a supposed uranium deal between Iraq and Niger, which was used to help make the case for war.

So this is what we have come to. What passes for political statesmanship is the borderline demagoguery of Ann Coulter and Michael Moore, of Bill O’Reilly and Al Franken. What passes for political discourse is anything that punishes rather than engages.

Why do politicians take this path, and why does the press follow them down it?

Because that’s what we Americans choose to reward.

It is hard to determine which came first in this vicious circle of meanness, the political party’s attack ad or the lone partisan’s bumper sticker.

Far too many of us respond more positively to negative campaign ads. Too many of us prefer political bull-baiting to civil discussion. We want entertainment, not information. We want confirmation, not news. Give us scandal over issues. Don’t make us think, just let us watch. We’ll take the shrill and shallow over fair and balanced any day.

To fix this sad state of affairs, we turn too easily to our political leaders and our press. But what are they supposed to do when substance and sense fall on deaf ears? Surely, it is futile to think we can persuade them to change their ways until we persuade ourselves to change our habits.

That won’t happen until we acknowledge that freedom of speech in the political process fails its promise when it is used only to attack, vilify, distort, divert and punish. True, the First Amendment protects such speech — as it must — but surely good sense, good government and a culture of decency argue for a change in the tenor of current political campaigns.

If Americans themselves send the right message to politicians and the press about what they want to hear from the campaigns, not only will we clear the election-season air, we just might halt democracy’s slow slide into civic chaos.

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