The Laboratorium
March 2000

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Fight! Fight! Fight!

A common complaint from across the political spectrum is that journalists derive their income from the news they cover. Their stories slant towards the sensational, it is said, because of the inevitable temptations, sometimes too slight even to notice individually, that weigh on them to skew their reportage in the direction that will push more issues, draw more viewers. And when it comes to issues that touch upon the business of journalism, on the reporters' financial interests, well, it shouldn't be too hard to predict what their biases might be. Perhaps, and perhaps, but looking at the coverage of the presidential election campaign this year, I am led to the conclusion that the real threat to quality journalism flows from the reality that journalists derive their entertainment from the stories they cover.

Campaigns themselves are intensely boring affairs. A politician gives three speeches a day, say, which means every day brings three-minute variants on the standard stump speech for weeks on end. If that seems to reflect poorly on our politicians, think this in their defense: do we ask touring musicians to perform fresh sets at every stop? Not even Bob Dylan has a backlist long enough to last through all of primary season, and unless we want to see an enormous volume of extraordinarily mediocre speechwriting unleashed upon the world, we're more or less stuck with the political equivalent of "Hello, Turkmenistan! Are you ready to rock?"

For example, the Democractic contest this year pits Al Gore against Bill Bradley, and there is just no way that pair of personalities is going to stir up much excitement. Gore, the world's least charismatic politician, versus Bradley, the world's least charismatic professional athlete, both of them doing their best to distance themselves from Clinton. The press loved Clinton. Every time life near him threatened to get boring, yet another completely boneheaded act from his past would pop up from behind the hedgerow and streak across the lawn. From which Gore and Bradley seem to have understood the contrapositive of Clinton's teachings: if scandal implies excitement, then it logically follows that the lack of excitement implies a similar lack of scandal. Whether or not it makes for more trustworthy leaders or more popular public images-- and Clinton is still bobbing along, roundly despised yet still popular with the populace-- it makes for bland campaigns and dull air.

The reporters following a campaign around are basically fighting deathly boredom at every turn. They want drama, they want excitement, they want something to happen, dammit. That's why they love John McCain: here's a politician more than willing to supply them with all the excitement they need. You never know what's going to pop out of his mouth next, but unlike all their favorite fringe candidates, his popularity in the voting booth actually gives them a good excuse to follow him around and try to prompt him for fun unscripted moments. They don't actually love him, of course, they just love having him around. Right now, it's making things more interesting to be able to write stories about how bizzare he may be and why the media are falling out of love with him. The pendulum swings back and forth, because it's more fun that way. There's an unofficially-sanctioned spin at any given moment, and since part of reportage is covering the prevailing mood of the other reporters, they all win whenever they collectively agree to let the press winds shift. George W. was fun for a while, especially with that pop quiz thing, but the trouble is that with his buttoned-up campaign and fundamental blandness, it's hard to whipsaw the story energetically enough; you can change your mind about McCain more often without it seeming strange.

In the absence of such genuine drama-- "genuine" in the sense of "playing well on television," that is-- the press corps are left to their own devices in trying to create some. If the candidates won't oblige with the kind of unscripted behavior the press loves to see but will punish them brutally for, then the press needs to get its hands on the script itself and do some rewrites. It's quite amazing actually, if you look closely enough at the false-bottomed boxes and the sleight-of-hand involved, but they've developed some very effective techniques to do just that. The real story of the last few months is the story of how the reporters managed to pick a fight between Gore and Bradley.

First, they communicated their boredom to the electorate, pleaded with the electorate to be bored also, refused to try to liven up the candidates' policy unveilings. Then, with public standards of attentiveness basically in the toilet and the threshold for news lowered, pretty much anything that looked like one of the two slapping at the other was newsworthy. A Gore flunky saying Bradley was less electable than his guy could make the evening news as a "fresh attack from the Gore camp." Not unlike those legendary students who managed to get their professor to lecture from atop the wastebasket through judiciously applied positive feedback, the press corps managed to get Gore to start taking plenty of potshots at Bradley. Every time he did, good things happened to the coverage of his campaign, and Gore quickly realized, consciously or not, that every day he impugned his opponent was a day that the coverage of his campaign talked about him and his speeches with feigned interest, rather than about his alpha-male strategy sessions with mocking disdain.

Then they turned around and drove Bradley into negative campaigning as well. "Does he have what it takes to be President" became "Does he have what it takes to become President?" became "Does he have what it takes to win the campaign?" became "Does he have what it takes to get gruesome on Gore?" In this progression, not once was the content of "what it takes" explicitly articulated, thereby allowing the reporters to, well, imply that making a few disparaging comments about Gore's ethics might be part of it. The unfortuante truth, though, is that given the way our presidential elections work, given the difficulty of getting information about the campaign not filtered either through the media zeitgeist or the campaign spinsters who are trying every minute of every day to manipulate that zeitgeist, given the powerful dominion that perceived momentum holds over the process, a candidate's route to the public is through the press, so that the identity between "what it takes" and "what the press wants" is one of those self-fulfilling prophecies. And how does America's press corps use this astonishing power? They use it like bloodthirsty middle-schoolers, forming a ring and chanting "Fight! Fight! Fight!" at the first sign of a scrap in the making.

In explaining the media's "cynicism," it is perhaps reasonable to treat the most "cynical" articles and commentaries as being emblematic of the press' coming to terms, albeit poorly, with its own active role in politics. Discussion of a candidate's "stances," in which they "calls for" this and "lambastes" that, presents the words and deeds of those running for office entirely in the context of policy and ideology. A candidate has certain positions, would do certain things if elected, and the front page of the morning paper details these certainties.

The trouble with this sort of reportage is that it overlooks the degree to which a candidate's speeches are speech acts, things said in a particular context with the goal of inducing a particular response in others. At its theoretical simplest, the desired response is a vote for the candidate -- but in today's political climate, the speech act content of a stump speech or press conference is much more complicated. The news media literally does mediate between the candidates and the voting public, especially in the presidential election. Campaigns craft images of themselves for the press, images which will be filtered, edited, transmuted on their way to the viewing and reading public. And if the campaigns are appropriately on the ball, the content of those transmuted images will align with the speech acts the campaign would actually like the public to see. Succinct sound bites have a better chance of making the evening news; print coverage of a candidate tends to spike when they announce "major policy initiatives" and the like. Negative campaigning isn't always so much an attempt to directly tell voters mean things about the other guy as it is an attempt to interfere with the other campaign's own message transmission.

When Gore makes a speech denouncing high drug prices, what is important is not so much that he is denouncing high drug prices as that he is inviting the press to observe him denouncing high drug prices: ideology and policy are themselves forms of rhetoric. It is in this context that the New York Times discusses political campaigns in rhetorical terms. The Times article focues on the rhetorical aspects of Gore's position, its internal consistency, its relation to other statements Gore has made, its role as a position taken for some external observer (rather than as a position in and for itself).

The trouble here is that the Times is recognizing that poltical speech will be mediated, while completely ignoring the mediator. "Who is he trying to fool?" asks the Times, boldly stepping in to point out the "artificiality" of Gore's position, as though, had the Times not intervened, Gore would have sucessfully fooled the American public. In fact, had the Times not intervened, the American public wouldn't have heard about Gore's attitudes on drug prices one way or the other. The press, in trying to decode candidates' messages without acknowledging that the press itself is the intended recipient of those messages, isn't making things better. The result is not the cancelling-out of spin, but the addition of an additional, self-reflective layer, so that it becomes increasingly hard to pull even one coherent message out of the tangle. And to the extent that political campaigns start trying to repitch their messages to successfully pass through this layer of press corps cyncism, things are only going to get worse.

Irony alone is not necessarily a bad thing; clear-eyed ironic detachment is often an important perspective. But to be cynical about one element of an interlinked process while leaving the rest apart from examination -- this cheap cynicism too often has the effect of making the whole more worth being cynical about.

Originally published 2 March 2000 at, and as a posting to Slate's Fray on 3 July 2000.