Politics: Too Much Speed, Too Much Comment
If like me you have an interest in the background to major political stories, one book that’s been heavily publicised over the past week has much to commend it.
Like Primary Colours before it, Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House by Mark Halperin and John Heilermann purports to tell the behind-the-scenes tale of a fiercely fought US presidential campaign.
Unlike the earlier tome, this new one shuns any fictional veneer. It is, according to its authors, pure reportage based on eye-witness testimony from sources close to the candidates.
Judging from the reviews and excerpts I’ve read, the machinations of the campaign plotters – not to mention the sometimes histrionic behaviour of some candidates – provide the kind of back-story that Robert Harris might have used in his series on ancient Rome.
It’s tempting, yet I hesitate to read the book. It’s not that I’m squeamish about how some politicians behave; it just that I think we already have a surfeit of political comment, which isn't helping either the voters or those who are chosen to lead.
Switch on almost any TV newscast today and you'll find a range of pundits telling you not only what’s happening right now in the world of politics – this very second – but what you can expect to see happen next.
Political reporters, it seems, have become political prophets, declaring ‘all the news before it happens.’
This type of thing has long been prevalent in the US, where cable and network TV churn out political comment ad nauseam.
If you’re visiting the States and watch enough of this wall-to-wall, coast-to-coast prognostication – it’s more verbal warfare than reasoned debate – you can begin to wonder whether there are factories on either coast that manufacture ready-made political gurus, complete with a new book to promote and a unique showbiz shtick.
Here in Europe we may not yet have it down to as fine an art as our Atlantic cousins but we are learning fast. In the media marketplace there is often more comment about politics than real political debate.
I may not have read Race of a Lifetime but I have just finished another title which I think should be sold right alongside it, perhaps as a counterweight.
No Time to Think by Howard Rosenberg and Charles S. Feldman shows how the speed of the 24/7 news cycle and blogosphere, and the surfeit of comment available, is leading to a breakdown in our ability to process political information.
Driven by the speed of a highly competitive internet culture, media and press newsrooms no longer have time to interpret or even fact-check many of the stories they promote.
The authors call this the ‘menace of media speed.’ The recipe for today's political coverage, they say, is five parts news mixed with ten parts speculation.
If you think about it, there’s probably not only too much political comment, but too much politics in today’s world.
Politics once operated on the periphery of people’s lives but is now a central part of our lives, whether we’re conscious of this or not. Politicians and political bureaucracies now have unprecedented influence on the way we live our lives.
In our working lives, many of us face government targets for this and government charges for that, while our private lives are impacted by political initiatives on family, education and much more.
If anything, then, you could say that political processes themselves need to be reined in to allow individuals more individual freedom.
On top of an increase in political intrusion, though, we now have the added burden of an entire class of commentators who, not content to merely tell the story, seem to want to become the story or at least to make their profession a key part of it.
As a result many people turn off politics altogether, either because they feel that it’s become a subject for experts or just because they can’t be bothered sifting through all the chaff to find the kernels of truth.
This is far from healthy for society as a whole. A strong society needs a citizenry that is actively involved and feels a sense of ownership in the processes which govern it.
The speed of media news and the preponderance of comment also have ramifications for politicos themselves. Driven by ever shortening public attention spans, leaders take less and less time to ponder the full impact of their policies.
They push ahead on all manner of programmes and projects, from radical changes to education and healthcare to decisions about going to war, simply because they need to attract media coverage and that, increasingly, requires a constant diet of novelty.
Some political decisions are way too important to be taken quickly, or even with a view to the four or five year life cycle of government’s mandate in mind. The consequences of a media-driven rush to decide could be disastrous.
The authors of No Time to Think asked John F. Kennedy's special counsel Ted Sorensen what might have happened had the Cuban missile crisis taken place in this age of lightning-speed media.
In 1962, a U-2 surveillance flight photographed evidence that the Soviets were building offensive missile bases in Cuba. When Kennedy gathered key members of his administration to consider possible US responses, Sorensen recalls that everyone in the room felt the missiles had to be taken out, probably through an air strike.
Some members were even in favour of invading Cuba and removing Castro, but no decision was made at that first meeting. In the end, after back-and-fourth notes to Khrushchev, JFK opted for a naval blockade of Cuba, cutting off Soviet ships. It was still a risky strategy, but far less so than an air strike would have been.
Had they been living as we are now in an age of 24/7 news and comment, says Sorensen, the treat of having the stalled US response broadcast to the world would have put enormous pressure on JFK to make an immediate decision.
This decision, he adds, would have been the wrong one and quite probably would have led to nuclear confrontation.
So, what is the answer? For a start, media leaders might think about generating less political comment and more information on how we, the people, can get involved in changing things for the better.
One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves is: ‘What kind of city do I want to live in ten years from now and what can I do now to set that in motion?’ Media can play a vital role in helping us answer that question, giving us opportunities to pool our creative resources and generate practical, community-driven ideas for change.
At the same time, media bosses would do well to think about limiting political coverage to reporting events and, of course, investigating the processes and people behind those events – but with more emphasis on reporting and less on reaction.
The speed of news isn’t going to slow down any time soon, but it wouldn’t hurt mainstream political pundits and their editors and producers to take a deep breath and try to reflect for longer before rushing to comment.