Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 30, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

SIMPLE MORAL JUDGMENTS....Ezra Klein says he's sympathetic about the media's difficulty dealing with complex policy proposal from candidates. But not too sympathetic:

Policy is hard. Lots of people come to different conclusions. Unanimity is rare. Except on this gas tax holiday. Just about no one thinks it a good idea. Conservative economists loathe it, liberal economists loathe it, energy experts loathe it...it's shameless pandering of the worst sort. So is the media going to create a scandal around McCain's pander? Around Clinton's copy-pander? Will they hound them at press conferences, run segments about the derailed "Straight Talk Express," bring on pollsters to ask whether Americans are tired of being lied to?

....When confronted by the fact that their coverage of politics is frequently trivial and annoying, many in the media argue that they only report that way because the voters make their decisions based on trivial and annoying issues. But there's no doubt that, with proper press coverage, the gas holiday could be one of those trivial and annoying issues that comes to stand-in for broader character failures or narratives or whatever. It's just that the media doesn't like to deal with policy.

Yes, it would be nice if the press spent less time on inanities and more time on how candidates planned to actually run the country. But this view of the media is just too simplistic.

Like it or not, virtually every mini-dustup in a presidential campaign — Wrightgate, Tuzlagate, bittergate, Judigate, etc. — has one thing in common: it lends itself to a simple moral judgment. It helps a lot if there's also video available (or photos in a pinch), but the really important part is the simple moral judgment. That's what people react to. Cable news amplifies this tendency and makes it worse, but they didn't invent it.

And look: the blogosphere isn't much better. Take a look at the comment section of most political blogs and check out which posts get the most activity. Learned discussions of the history of the Earned Income Tax Credit? Analysis of which Shiite faction is up or down in Iraq's civil war? Nope. It's Wrightgate and Tuzlagate and bittergate and Judigate and any other post that provides an opportunity to express a simple moral judgment. Republicans suck. Dems are spineless. The media is corrupt.

And this is true even though blog readers tend to be far more wonky than the average politically lethargic American. But despite this, the blogosphere hasn't ginned up even as much outrage over the gas tax holiday as I saw from Jack Cafferty in 30 seconds yesterday. It's just hard to get too worked up over a minor political pander when we all know that responding to interest groups is what politicians do every day. It's practically in their job description.

Now, dig up a video of John McCain having dinner with some blonde bombshell oil industry lobbyist coyly telling him how much she wants to show her appreciation for his bold gas tax holiday proposal, and you've got yourself a story. Until then, CNN can put this on a 24/7 loop and it's just not going to catch on. You can't blame the media for everything.

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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Comments

Summer gas tax relief >>>> 3 months duration(?) = 5000 miles (20k per year?) /20MPG average = 250 gallons burned X .18 savings per gallon = $45.00 saved.

All this drama over $45.00 per car? $15.00 a month. Geez. We've pissed away a 1/2 a trillion dollars (likely more) in 5 years to battle to a draw in Iraq. Fighting a ragged group of malcontents having no air force, no navy, no mechanized artillary, no satellite capability, disrupted supply and command chains and limited financial resources. WTF is a more pressing matter here?
I'm loathe to watch either local or network newscasts. Cable is little better. Has anyone seen it broken down and explained as to the paltry sum of money the average person would save under this scheme? Anywhere?

Posted by: steve duncan on April 30, 2008 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin is on to something here, but I think there's more to it than that. There has been a shift in how politics is covered, and about how news is reported in general. The major TV networks have blurred the line between news and entertainment, and it shows. If news lacks entertainment value, it doesn't get reported. And as the networks have lead, so have the print media and other outlets followed. It is business after all, and ratings = profits.

Posted by: Dave Brown on April 30, 2008 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

Why are you wasting time with posts like this when there are far more important issues to discuss? Like I heard on the news the other night that sorcerers are stealing penises in Congo. Or maybe that was on the Daily Show.

Posted by: Grumpy on April 30, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

What's Judigate?

Posted by: Mimikatz on April 30, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

While Kevin is indeed onto something, his analysis simply explains why the problem exists. Using the gas tax and its foolishness as an example. Why does the media not simply say this is a foolish and meaningless proposal. Because if 40% of the electorate is for McCain and 30% for Clinton then the media pointing out the foolishness of the story will anger 70% of the electorate or at least cause them to disagree.

Likewise an issue such as Willie Horton. Republicans loved it because it hurt Dukakis. Reverend Wright, the Clinton and McCain people won't complain. You see the problem, everything is viewed through political lenses so one's perspective is skewed by whether the coverage or lack of coverage helps or hurts one's candidate. There will never be consensus on how to handle this issue because too many people don't bother if their candidate benefits.

I am reminded of a story about Joe McCarthy. When he began his red-baiting some Republicans in the Senate came to Robert Taft and said this guy could be trouble. Taft replied, "leave him alone he's only hurting Democrats." Indeed it was not until McCarthy went after Republicans that they yanked the rug out.

Thus is the way of politics and the never ending cycle that makes me want to puke.

Posted by: Stuart Shiffman on April 30, 2008 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

I must have missed something (thankfully). What the heck is a Judigate?

Posted by: tomeck on April 30, 2008 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, there's something to the shrinking penis story. Surprisingly, there are pesticides involved.

Posted by: thersites on April 30, 2008 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

Bu but, a gas tax holiday will stimulate the economy. We all get to go out and buy new decorations for our houses, maybe even some costumes too. Oh and don't forget the special gas tax holiday cookies and chocolates.

Posted by: optical weenie on April 30, 2008 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

It bubbles up in the Western media every few years, and we have a good laugh at those silly Africans, but it's going to have consequences for all of us.

Posted by: thersites on April 30, 2008 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

So obviously the new antidote to pesticides is Viagra!

Posted by: optical weenie on April 30, 2008 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Weenie,
Where are you registered for your gas-holidy wish list? Target, or Wal-mart?

But seriously. Read the article. Gene Logsdon isn't a flake, he's a respected writer on sustainable agriculture.

Posted by: thersites on April 30, 2008 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

I've decided that for the gas tax holiday I will register at Nieman Marcus. You can get me the lizard Manolo's Thersites, size 7M.

Posted by: optical weenie on April 30, 2008 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

Seems like this is what call in talk radio is able to do much better. They have to fill that time. Now of course, they don't always fill it well. But there is debate and discussion. And place for in-depth analysis. It's not always what I agree with across the dial, but it's where it's happening. TeeVee news is completely out of touch here, and unfortunately newspapers have followed the TV lead when they should be following radio (counterintuitive I know).

Posted by: Christopher / Inaudible Nonsense on April 30, 2008 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

WTF by all means let's just settle for the lowest common denominator on all issues because god knows thinking about anything might interfere with shopping or reading about Paris Hilton having sex with her cat or something.

Posted by: Gandalf on April 30, 2008 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

The media could make an issue entertaining if they wanted to, and/or make it look like a moral judgment. They just need to ask hard questions and watch to see if the candidate gets discomfitted. "How can you support a gas tax holiday when all economists and energy experts are opposed? Are you not just pandering ? " The media is failing in its responsibility to provide coherent information. They act like their job is just to entertain, but it isn't.

Posted by: richard on April 30, 2008 at 1:14 PM | PERMALINK

reading about Paris Hilton having sex with her cat or something.

That's hot!

Sorry...

Posted by: drjimcooper on April 30, 2008 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

Interesting "which came first" question. Are we a nation of morons because the media have reduced us to this, or are the media moronic because that's what we'll watch?

Posted by: thersites on April 30, 2008 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

You're out of my league, Weenie. Don't you know there's a recession on?
What? There isn't?

Posted by: thersites on April 30, 2008 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

Of course there is no recession. It's just a figment of people's imaginations that; a) the cost of living has gone up incredibly in the last few months, b) the value of real estate and 401K funds have dropped, c) unemployment is going up and companies are laying off, and d) people have stopped spending because their confidence in their economic future has gone down.

There is no recession. This is just part of the left wing attack machine.

So get me those shoes, now!

Oh, what colors are appropriate for gas tax holiday decorations.
(not red or green, that's Xmas; orange and black is Hallowe'en and Turkey Week; Yellow, blue and pink is Easter; Red, white and blue is July 4)

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm it might have to be BARNEY PURPLE

Posted by: optical weenie on April 30, 2008 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

Well, we get the media we deserve.

Modern America is missing two common social constructs, and their absence is really crippling our discourse, and ultimately our success as a society. They are: 1) commonly recognized authorities, and 2) shame (except sexual shame, of course, which is still publicly honored).

Without these two constructs, all ideas are of equal worth and there is no penalty for propagating falsehoods. What you end up with is our modern American discourse of endless, circular falderol and palaver, unchecked by anything except the inevitable onset of boredom.

Posted by: J. Myers on April 30, 2008 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, I heard that the cost of living is pretty stable if you don't count food and energy costs. And who needs those things?

Posted by: thersites on April 30, 2008 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Getting back to steve duncan's original comment, regarding the actual amount of money we (might) save on the Gas Tax Holiday, and tying in the Moronic Media Meme:

Last year our local TV news did a two-night "expose" on inaccurate meters in gas pumps. The segment had its own graphic, its own dramatic music, and a breathless reporter standing in front of a gas station in a gritty neighborhood. I don't remember the exact numbers involved, but I did the math at the time and it worked out to something less than 10 cents per fill-up.

I don't think they mentioned anything happening in Iraq, whatever that is.

Posted by: thersites on April 30, 2008 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK


Interesting "which came first" question. Are we a nation of morons because the media have reduced us to this, or are the media moronic because that's what we'll watch?

Clearly it's the latter.. because PBS shows like Frontline don't get the ratings that TMZ gets. So quit whining about the ABC Penn. debate.

Posted by: Andy on April 30, 2008 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

Here's what you're missing, Kevin.

#1: I'd bash the gas tax cut for hours if someone was willing to defend it. Issues that have consensus die. Debate keeps them alive.

#2: Lacking that, I may not be willing to listen to CNN repeat the phrase "this gas tax cut is dumb" 1000 times, but that doesn't mean it hasn't contributed to my belief that McCain is a shameless, unprincipled hack. It doesn't need to *dominate* cable news to be relevant. It just needs to be heard.

Posted by: glasnost on April 30, 2008 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

I totally agree.

News is primarily entertainment for a LOT of people, bite sized morality plays made extra spicy by their truthiness. I think this includes most bloggers as well.

This isn't to say that news doesn't also inform, but it's primarily entertainment, a reason for us to vent our outrages and confirm our own beliefs.

Sad but true, as the man says.

How many people _really_ support Obama because of his policy issues? How many people actually _know_ his policy issues? Not many. Same with Hillary. Sure, they may know she voted for Iraq and he didn't, and this surely plays a big role in some poeople's votes, but I think a lot of Obama support is engendered by a sense of outrage over the last 10-20 years by slimeballs like the Clintons and the Bushes both, not so much about where they think capital gains rates should fall.

Posted by: BombIranForChrist on April 30, 2008 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

People these days....

Posted by: absent observer on April 30, 2008 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

Steve Duncan asks:
"Has anyone seen [the gas-tax holiday scheme] broken down and explained as to the paltry sum of money the average person would save under this scheme? Anywhere?"

Actually, just after Hillary announced her "me too" policy, Obama pointed out that it would amount to no more than $30 per car - "half a tank" - for the whole summer.

Posted by: jim on April 30, 2008 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

Hammer meet nail.

I write about health policy, and specifically, about professional nursing and patient advocacy.

Health policy + nurse stereotypes = blogosphere indifference.

People respond to sensation, immediacy and self-interest.

That. is. all.

Posted by: Annie on April 30, 2008 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

"It's Wrightgate and Tuzlagate and bittergate and Judigate...."

Please, please, please, this habit of appending gate to, now, even the most minor controversies has become so completely trite.

When I read someone promiscuously using the gate appendage I immediately quit reading, as I despair of reading original thoughts.

Posted by: Chris Brown on April 30, 2008 at 3:12 PM | PERMALINK

Well stated Kevin.

Posted by: Jack Sprat on April 30, 2008 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

But what is Judigate? There's still no answer.

Posted by: Mimikatz on April 30, 2008 at 4:06 PM | PERMALINK

"Take a look at the comment section of most political blogs and check out which posts get the most activity. Learned discussions of the history of the Earned Income Tax Credit? Analysis of which Shiite faction is up or down in Iraq's civil war? Nope. It's Wrightgate and Tuzlagate and bittergate and Judigate and any other post that provides an opportunity to express a simple moral judgment."

Kevin, that's overly simplistic. On your blog, for example, the reason that those topics get the most play is because your commenters are split between Obama supporters and Clinton supporters, most of whom vehemently disagree with one another. On many of those other issues, on the other hand, you're preaching to the choir. The only ones who disagree are the idiotic trolls who infest the site and they just aren't as capable of ginning up a flame war as they used to be.

Posted by: PaulB on April 30, 2008 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

Judigate was the issue that helped bring Giuliani down.

Posted by: PaulB on April 30, 2008 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

Obviously PaulB's knowledge of pressing gate issues is incredigate.

Posted by: optical weenie on April 30, 2008 at 5:11 PM | PERMALINK

thersites,

You know I got your back dude, but the Logsdon article jumps from birth defects and lowered sperm counts all the way over to shrinky pinky without looking down.

Which is to say hormones in food may do bad things but is Shrinky Pinky(TM) one of them? I dunno.

Posted by: Tripp on April 30, 2008 at 5:16 PM | PERMALINK

Tripp,
It's only logical that excesses of certain hormones (which are steroid based) would cause shrinky pinky - certain steroids have been clinically indicted as the cause.
What is more interesting, however, is Thersites continued fascination with boner pills and shrinky pinkies.

Posted by: optical weenie on April 30, 2008 at 5:36 PM | PERMALINK

Regarding comment-makers on blogs, do you think I want to have to talk about what degraded filth the Republicans and Bush are? I would LIKE to not have people in government and the media NOT constantly doing things that are not just wrong, but frankly evil. INCREDIBLY evil.

Do you actually think there were be as much apoplexy around these parts if Republicans actually worked to served the people and actually worked with Democrats?

Posted by: Anon on April 30, 2008 at 6:05 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin's got a point about comment sections. It's true, we suck. I'm off to the thread below, where I will express try to express a subtle point about why our GDP didn't shrinky dinky as much as expected.

Posted by: matt on April 30, 2008 at 6:17 PM | PERMALINK

re: dig up a video of John McCain having dinner with some blonde bombshell oil industry lobbyist coyly telling him how much she wants to show her appreciation for his bold gas tax holiday proposal, and you've got yourself a story

Does Charles Keating count? (why hasn't McCain's involvement in the Keating 5 merited any mention by the enterprising media?)

Posted by: DB on April 30, 2008 at 6:30 PM | PERMALINK

Mr Drum:
Excuse me. I had to shake my head back and forth a couple of times and put on my glasses in order to think I undersatand what you've just said here.

Because the entertainment industry moguls have bought up much of the real news outlets that most citizens depend on for actual reporting and not titillation, you are now blaming the citizenry for only paying attention to the T&A now being purveyed by the very same news shows that offer up titillation that is now considered informed commentary or simple recital of the facts. Huh?

"You can't blame the media for everything."

Certainly not, but you could do your job.

I hadn't realized that journalistic press responsibility had become something whose acronym stood for the PR denoting complete dysfunction of a once somewhat independent entity. Try taking off the baseball cap, it must be keeping the sun out of your eyes.

Posted by: kabiddle on April 30, 2008 at 7:21 PM | PERMALINK

So what you're saying is, blame the public? I totally agree, we do need a better populace. But how could we shape one? Hmmm... wait... I have an idea... how about we invent a device that presents for public viewing physically attractive, highly authoritative individuals wearing expensive suits all reciting the same exact narrative in unison? In the right hands, such a device could really influence people's perceptions and way of thinking.

Of course, one shudders to think of what would happen if control of such a powerful device fell into the wrong hands. Why, it could even be used to convince people that resistance itself is futile!

On second thought, it's just too dangerous. Maybe this remote viewing device had better remain un-invented. But if anyone ever does invent such a thing, and it requires the use of public-domain airwaves, then a degree of governmental oversight would certainly be in order. I'm thinking serious anti-trust regulation plus some sort of fairness doctrine, stuff like that. Otherwise, resistance really would be futile.

Posted by: eb on April 30, 2008 at 8:53 PM | PERMALINK

I forget who it was that said "you go into an election with the media you've got, not the media you want". I think it was someone famous.

Posted by: David on May 1, 2008 at 12:34 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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