The World as It “Ought to Be”

Journalists and pundits like to pretend they’re moralists when it serves their purposes, writes Eric Alterman.

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Members of the media, like Cokie Roberts pictured above,  who are charged with being sophisticated, nonideological interpreters of political reality regularly embrace the childish good vs. bad dichotomy whenever they find it convenient. (AP/Matthew J. Lee)
Members of the media, like Cokie Roberts pictured above,  who are charged with being sophisticated, nonideological interpreters of political reality regularly embrace the childish good vs. bad dichotomy whenever they find it convenient. (AP/Matthew J. Lee)

One of the key aspects of the poohbahs of the punditocracy that goes relatively unnoticed is how childish so many of them are. By “childish” I have a specific meaning in mind. Children are taught that certain things are “right” and other things are “wrong.” People who do right things are “good” and those who don’t are “bad.” The world, however, does not conform to the storybook version we give our kids in grammar school. Adults understand that, in fact, as Andre Gide once said, “the color of truth is gray.” But that is often too complicated a notion to make it into contemporary debate.

Now, the good-bad dichotomy is easy to spot in the extreme, ideological locales in the media such as Fox News and talk radio. But what I find so fascinating about it is that even those members of the media who are charged with being sophisticated, nonideological interpreters of political reality regularly embrace this tactic whenever they find it convenient.

Take for instance The Wall Street Journal’s political analyst, Gerald Seib (who is not associated in any way with its fire-breathing editorial page). Seib explained in a column published on September 11 entitled “The Debate that Never Was” that:

One of the virtues of a presidential campaign is, or at least ought to be, that it provides a platform to fully debate the biggest questions the nation faces. Sure, campaigns are long, and sometimes silly. But amid the madness they offer a forum for the country to chew over the choices before it, and point to some resolution of them.

Note the words “ought to be” in the sentence above. Most things that “ought to be,” as Seib well knows, are not. When, for instance, a man tells a woman that she “ought to be in pictures” it is a good bet that he has something other than a six-figure movie deal in mind. Seib, who is not a six-year-old child, knows quite well that American elections do not allow for candidates to “fully debate the biggest questions the nation faces.” Rather they allow each side to highlight the issues they think will help them win and try to ignore the others.

Does Seib really think that the biggest question facing the American electorate in 1988 was whether Willie Horton should have been pardoned or whether flag factories were experiencing healthy times? Does he think it really mattered whether President George H.W. Bush could read a supermarket scanner four years later? Was it really important what countries Bill Clinton had visited as a student during that same election, or whether he had “inhaled” when passed a joint in that same election? What about all the attention to Hillary Clinton’s invocation of Tammy Wynette? How does that relate to the problems the country faces? And what of George W. Bush’s two elections? Just how did the alleged exaggerations of Al Gore—almost of all of which were actually little more than sloppy and lazy reporting by members of the media—relate to the questions that would face the next president? And how, four years later, could the nation debate such issues as George W. Bush’s extensive use of torture and rendition along with any number of extra-constitutional measures when these were kept secret from the public?

When Seib complains that the debate “didn’t happen as much as it should have in 2008,” he seems not to know that it’s pretty damn difficult to find an election where it did. (I had to go back all the way to 1980 before I could find one.) “In retrospect,” he writes, “the president would have been better off if the campaign had offered a clearer preview, and a chance to flash the yellow warning lights that are so bright now. It wasn’t so much that Mr. Obama misread a clear mandate as that he never got one.”

Well, perhaps Mr. Seib complained that previous presidents did not enjoy a mandate—including, of course, the one who was handed the office by the U.S. Supreme Court under extremely shady circumstances. But if so I am unaware of it. I am impressed, however, that for the purposes of getting a column done he is willing to pretend that there was something peculiarly substanceless about the “debates” of 2008.

Seib’s faux naiveté has a purpose. It allows journalists and pundits to pose as moralists who are above the fray of politics and lecture the rest of us as if they are somehow morally superior to the people they cover. This nonsense is reminiscent of one of the mainstream media’s least endearing moments: “L’Affair Lewinsky.”

Remember back then, sounding less like sophisticated political analysts than Sunday school pedants, pundits like Stuart Taylor of the National Journal complained on “Meet the Press” that “I’d like to be able to tell my children, ‘You should tell the truth.’ I’d like to be able to tell them, ‘You should respect the President.’ And I’d like to be able to tell them both things at the same time."

William J. Bennett, his colleague on the program, spoke of the “moral and intellectual disarmament” that befalls a nation when its president is not “being a decent example” and “teaching kids the difference between right and wrong.”

“We have a right to say to this president, ‘What you have done is an example to our children that’s a disgrace,’” he added. This view was seconded by Cokie Roberts, who “approach[ed] this as a mother.” “This ought to be something that outrages us, makes us ashamed of him.” (Her children were fully grown, but perhaps unusually sensitive.)

Our founders understood that it was not necessary—and was in fact destructive—to the cause of good government to treat the exercise as if the rules of a kindergarten class somehow applied. James Madison famously observed in Federalist 51 that, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

It’s overt bias to pretend it’s news when American politicians descend from some platonic notion of goodness since it’s merely a matter of picking any person or incident you like and pretending there’s something unusual about it. That’s just what Seib has done—and what his colleagues do all too often—in an endless quest to demonstrate, however inadvertently, that they are in the wrong damn business.

By the way, I see from Maureen Dowd’s column that the members of the mainstream media are beginning to notice that “Newt Gingrich is truly gaga.” You can read it here first.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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