Politicians in the US today have a lot to learn from Daniel Patrick Moynihanby Sam Tanenhaus / August 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Leave it to an attentive historian to diagnose the state of American politics, its curious mix of passivity and agitation, and to identify its symptoms: “[T]he growth of the mass media of communication and their use in politics have brought politics closer to the people than ever before and have made politics a form of entertainment in which the spectators feel themselves involved. Thus it has become, more than ever before, an arena into which private emotions and personal problems can be readily projected. Mass communications have made it possible to keep the mass man in an almost constant state of political mobilisation.”
So Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1954, when the chief spectacle was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist “investigations,” broadcast on radio and also on the infant mass medium, television. Some networks carried the proceedings live, hour upon hour; others distilled them in late-night excerpts. As theatre it was often boring, with just enough surprises, occasional bursts or flare-ups, to keep “mass man” glued to his seat, riveted, or narcotised; not mobilised in any normal sense—1954 was not a year for taking to the streets—but highly suggestible.
Sixty years later, little has changed but the media itself, in its many new invasive forms, which feed the growing appetite for “disclosure” and have changed the economic calculations of journalism, with “audience development” now at their centre. It is no longer enough for the reporter to “get the story.” He must also satisfy the “metrics” of page views, “clicks” and of Facebook “likes,” and attain the maximum exposure of tweets and retweets by “influencers,” who each command small armies of “followers.” The outward costs of this—the investment of time and energy—have been amply explored. What are coming into view only now are disruptions in the ways print journalism is written, edited and published, the almost continual heightening and vivifying of the news into melodrama, each item juicily spread before the reader like an episode of House of Cards. It is happening even in the United States’s greatest newspaper, the New York Times (where I worked for nearly a dozen years). When Maureen Dowd, a first-rate columnist with matchless Beltway sources, learned that Vice President Joe Biden was (once again) thinking of challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, prompted in part by urgings from his son, who died of brain cancer at the age of 46 in May, she didn’t simply relate this development, she contrived a miniature tele-novel: “My kid’s dying, an anguished Joe Biden thought to himself, and he’s making sure I’m OK.” Such liberties aren’t really surprising in a columnist, and certainly not Dowd, whose gift is for measuring the ever-expanding egos of Washington “personalities.”