Monday, January 11, 2010

The Latest Neglect of the People's Business

It did not take long for the feeding frenzy to get into full gear over Game Change, the latest move in the gossip-as-journalism game by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. On the Saturday evening news the only victim that had surfaced was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but by last night it seemed as if you could not throw a cat down a Washington street without hitting one of the targets of the book. Michael Calderone called it most accurately this morning on POLITICO when he labeled the whole affair a "freak show." This is hardly the first time such a circus has come to town, but it is interesting to see the way in which such spectacle has migrated from the domain of fiction to that of journalism. Its appeal in fiction was established at least as early as 1880, which is when Democracy: An American Novel was first published anonymously; but in my own student times the mantle of Henry Adams (revealed to be the book's author only after his death) had passed to Allen Drury. Even Hollywood saw gold to be mined from Advise & Consent, particularly in the hands of an expert on the foibles of human nature like Otto Preminger.

In those days, however, it seemed as if we could accept such salacious entertainment for what it was (which is to say little more than a guilty pleasure) without letting it follow us into those voting booths where we had our one opportunity to participate in the workings of our government. The Internet changed all that, and this may be best appreciated through the way in which Calderone outlined the background of Game Change:

Just when the 2008 campaign seemed slipping below the horizon, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s “Game Change” blew across the political landscape this weekend in an explosion of Twitter, blog, cable and MSM coverage.

The book’s successful launch was no surprise to Howard Fineman, Newsweek’s chief political writer, given that Halperin, in his opinion, “more or less created the world that we now live in: the 24-7, always-on, hyperlinked, Web-based, D.C. political media world we live in now with ‘The Note.’”

As founder and editor of ABC’s “The Note,” which began targeting the influential Gang of 500 in 2002, Halperin pioneered the transmission of real-time political news, earning a New Yorker profile in 2004, and later distilling what he know about the viral nature of political news in “The Way to Win,” a book he co-wrote in 2006 with POLITICO Editor-in-Chief John Harris.

Given the reams of real-time coverage of the 2008 race, followed by Newsweek’s lengthy post-election tick-tock and “The Battle for America,” a Dan Balz-Haynes Johnson book on the election that came out last fall, it might be expected that the political press corps had picked the campaign carcass clean long ago.

But Fineman said Halperin and Heilemann “very smartly went after stuff that was undercovered,” such as John and Elizabeth Edwards. And once having such juicy, insider material, Fineman noted that the authors — both residing in New York, the television and publishing capital — are savvy enough to effectively market the material.

In today’s media world, Fineman added, the “tweetable nugget” is the type of thing that quick gets the attention of reporters, and subsequently, readers.

“A long analysis of the demographics of the electorate is not going to get you an HBO movie,” Fineman said. “But the tawdry psycho-drama of the Edwards’s and a racist crack by Harry Reid will.”

That last paragraph may get to the heart of the matter. The question of how seriously ordinary Americans take the political process has been around since the arguments between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, but I doubt that either of those founding fathers could have foreseen a time in which voters would be more interested in being a part of an HBO movie than in the workings of their government.

The quality of those workings has always been a tenuous matter, but it is hard to come away from the Calderone-Fineman interpretation of the events that unfolded over the weekend without wondering whether or not the primary motive behind Game Change was a major disruption of those workings. Consider, as a single example, all of the activities of both Democrats and Republicans around the Reid "revelation" as reported this morning by Mike Allen and Jake Sherman for POLITICO. It seems as if all of the key figures in Washington are now preoccupied with either controlling the damage or exacerbating it. The question that voters should be asking right now is, "Who's minding the store," or, as I prefer to put it, "Who is doing 'the people's business' that they were elected to do?" The primary impact of Game Change may be a reinforcement of current public opinion that we now have a government incapable of getting anything done, whether the issue at stake is health care, unemployment, or military adventurism (or, for that matter, things that "really matter," like whether or not the State of the Union address will conflict with Lost).

If that is the case, then we have good reason to be concerned; and our concern should be directed not as the foibles of the all-too-human but at the vulnerability of government itself. As I recently observed. we know from history that a public that sees its government as bogged down by its own ineffective practices is a public ready to hand a mandate for authority over to a dictator-in-the-making. The sad irony is that this hazardous state of affairs may have been a consequence of the work of those who saw the Internet as an opportunity to increase the scope of democracy, failing to recognize the delicate balance that our own government has tried to maintain between the majority rule of "pure" democracy and the need to respect individual rights.

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