What will surely make everything worse this year is the Supreme Court enabled wide-open competition for money and spending. A host of reasons are offered for the carnival atmosphere, attack ads, and the petty news coverage.
One explanation, seldom mentioned, is an old one: this stuff works: the mud sticks to candidates under attack and it also attracts audiences.
Candidates, being human, have real vulnerabilities. The voters and the press need to look deeply into their backgrounds for clues to their characters in order to imagine how they’d behave as president. Sometimes we claim to see important hints in their personal as well as professional lives. In fact we’ve always struggled for proxies that might help us guess how a candidate would behave if entrusted with the top job in the country and to remind voters of what’s at stake.
In 1984, Walter Mondale’s campaign ran a commercial that showed a red phone ringing in the White House. Voters were invited to speculate about who they trusted to answer it. The Red Phone approach, of course, has lost its bite with the end of the Cold War and the threat of planetary extinction. Perhaps because we no longer apply the threshold test of imagining how a prospective president might behave in a nuclear crisis, we feel freer to speculate about other questions.
The big unregulated money will make every insinuation louder and is especially likely to have a profound effect magnifying any charges in congressional races. People generally know less about those contests and they get less “free media.” In the presidential race the public also has a chance in the debate process to see the candidates in direct competition.
Overall, however, among the many explanations for the campaign coverage we are getting, one seems to me most apt and particularly troubling. The kind of reporting we see may well be a purer market solution to the news business. We know that scandal sells. Sex, innuendo, and gossip sell. You don’t have to do a scientific survey to see what the market solution is for commercial and especially cable television.
In this context perhaps the really amazing thing is that there has been so much restraint in past political coverage. There always has been, of course, an upscale audience that buys advertising in “more serious publications.” And we still have a few family owned media outlets that are not subject to such intense market pressures to maximize shareholder value. There are also a handful of candidates who will raise their funds largely from small contributors. But both restraint in fundraising and in advertising fly in the face of powerful forces propelling big money and just short of big lies.
Just recall the impact of the “independent” group that attacked John Kerry’s record as a Swift Boat captain in Vietnam. It mattered little that Kerry was a highly decorated veteran. The truth stood no chance in the face of a titillating, extremely well-financed lie. In 2012 we’re certain to see attack ad campaigns that make “swift boat veterans for truth” look mild and moderate. By equating speech and money, our Supreme Court has ensured that the responsible press, especially in congressional campaigns, is swamped by lavish spending on whatever it takes to bring down targeted candidates. Of course that hardly means that President Obama is going to get a pass. We can be confident that tens — maybe hundreds — of millions will be spent insinuating the worst about his origins, his religion, his patriotism — and anything else that might tar his reelection effort. One goal of these efforts will be to find ways to see that their charges are picked up and repeated in the media. Given the fact that Fox News apparently operates on a business plan based on shrill partisanship “independent” attacks on Obama will have a running start.
We believe in markets; we’ve sold the idea to the world; and there is much to commend it. In the last 30 years, at least until the onset of the Great Recession and the Occupy Wall Street movement, Americans were born again into the faith that market forces would produce the best of all possible worlds. This belief has extended well beyond the more limited idea that markets can provide a superior form of private capital allocation. We see them as inextricably bound up with the freedom and liberalism of democracy.
I don’t quarrel with these views except for the vital fact that they tend to oversimplify both markets and human beings. All around us there are people every day making decisions that have nothing to do with profit maximization or personal wealth. They fall in love; they commit suicide; they waste time; they go to church. In Yugoslavia, rather than celebrate their initiation to free enterprise, they started killing each other over ethnic divisions hundreds of years old. Our everyday experience, in fact, is that we see people motivated by all sorts of things that are not necessarily likely to produce the most income or to maximize market efficiency.
Economic man, in short, is only part of the story. The Marxists learned that the hard way; perhaps we will too.
The more immediate question this election year is can we harness some of the other forces that influence our behavior to influence the mix of coverage we are getting? Is there, for example, any role for good taste? Can we restore gossip to its proper lowly place among the considerations that go into choosing a president? Are we capable of insisting that campaign coverage emphasize other issues and values? We theoretically could restrain the media and force it to report the campaign a particular way.
After all, what the media reports is in fact the experience voters have-- very few of us have direct contact with the candidates. But, of course, that remedy would be worse than the disease.
My personal fantasy is that an economic solution might be possible, with an aroused public supporting public funding of campaigns and demanding serious coverage of the contests. More realistically, perhaps the best we can hope for is an increase in peer pressure among journalists: more shame and guilt for the bad actors, and alternatively more approval and applause for those who cover the campaign responsibly.
On the whole the Great Republic coexists quite nicely with selfishness and greed. But we have the right and perhaps the obligation to demand more from our press. We certainly do from our presidents, insisting that they reflect a great many of our values beyond mere commitment to the free enterprise system. Perhaps these two ideas are not unrelated.
Can a press that is driven only by the marketplace adequately report and judge the candidates for chief executive and the deeper values they represent? In 2012, that is a tough question. Democracy may indeed give us the leadership we deserve. But when it comes to the media, we only get what we pay for.
Richard C. Leone is a senior fellow and the former president of the Century Foundation. He is an expert in tax and budget policy; political reform; inequality issues; and homeland security.