Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Where's the Chaos?

I did not know that the Associated Press had its own columnists. However, according to an Editor's Note at the end of one of his articles, that is what Ron Fournier is:

Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years. On Deadline is an occasional column.

Having slogged my way through the column (only realizing it was a column after the fact), I was at least relieved that Associated Press was not passing it off as news. This was one of those pieces that had me worried from the very first sentence (including the byline):

WASHINGTON - In the land of comebacks, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain revived their sagging campaigns Tuesday night and catapulted the Democratic and Republican presidential races into a surprise state of chaos.

I have been getting my news on all of our would-be Presidents from the BBC, mostly through the feeds they provide to PBS. Last night, however, BBC America ran a live special from New Hampshire, which, fortuitously enough, was aired around the time that Hillary had accumulated enough votes to be declared the winner. (McCain's victory had been acknowledged before they went on the air.) The BBC journalists have certainly caught a pretty virulent case of Primary Fever and had joined the rest of the pundits in declaring the Iowa results to be a major sea change in the respective courses for the Democratic and Republican parties. Last night they were making the same kinds of declarations; and, in true Washington Echo Chamber tradition, were doing it by interviewing fellow pundits.

Then, just as the dust is about to settle, Fournier comes out with a column from inside the Echo Chamber, declaring the Presidential races in both parties to be in "a surprise state of chaos." Having taken another columnist, Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, to task for lacking a "sense of reality," I realize that Fournier seems to lack that same sense; but, while I get the impression that Robinson is sincere about the positions he takes (even if I disagree with his reasoning), Fournier seems more interested in eyeball-grabbing words like "chaos." From where I sit (which is neither in Washington or in any part of New Hampshire), the only "chaos" is see is in the media, which seems to be making a collective ado over having lost is compass in covering the primaries; and that chaos is nothing more than the chaos of a business trying to run at "Internet speed," when it should be enhancing that "sense of reality" through both observation and reflection.

Put another way, political reporting is making the same mess of things that financial reporting has made for quite some time, basically by invoking the same methodology. Just as financial reporters look at their numbers through very narrow temporal windows and then reinforce their interpretations in their own "echo chamber," political reporters and columnists feel compelled to account for every event in its immediate wake. To invoke a favorite metaphor of John Seely Brown, both communities suffer from the tunnel vision of looking at the world through tubes for rolls of toilet paper. What is missing is what I like to call that "long view of history," which is really the only view from which we can distinguish minor turbulence from major disruption. Of course those driven by this compulsion argue that their readers demand that they be so compelled, but are they listening to their readers or the reverberations of their echo chamber? My guess is that, while most of the people who voted in Iowa and New Hampshire do not devote large chunks of time to the study of history, they are smart enough to know that there is more to experience than the last thing that happened to you. For better or worse, one goes into the voting booth with all the baggage of one's life experience; and that accounts for far more than enduring all the campaign strategies that had been mustered to influence the choice that actually gets made on the ballot. In other words voters have a better sense of reality than all of those media voices that try to tell them what reality is. Perhaps that is why, from my point of view, the closest thing to a "sense of reality" came from John Edwards addressing is supporters after his poor showing in New Hampshire:

Up until now, about half of 1 percent of Americans have voted. Ninety-nine percent plus have not voted. And those 99 percent deserve to have their voices heard because we have had too much in America of people's voices not being heard.

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