September 27, 2002

The dramatic eye…

Howard Kurtz this morning takes a look at partisan wrangling. The situation he describes is nothing new. Such fussing, name-calling, and accusing is as old as the republic. The difference today is that journalism broadcasts all of this political jousting instantly to the people. Among the media that make this possible is one particular form (television) with a structural bias favoring drama, images, and controversy above rational discourse. Kurtz says:

“And the media, which love a good fight, are cheering them on. Bush, Cheney, Daschle, Gore–every utterance is presumed to be motivated by the desire for partisan advantage in ’02 and ’04, not necessarily what’s good for the country. The press doesn’t always come out and say that, but it’s there in the body language.

The result is a sad spectacle that almost mocks the solemn rhetoric of this month’s Sept. 11 anniversary. The pols are constantly outraged that someone else would say something to either exploit the situation/impugn their integrity/tilt the election/endanger the American people. And on and on.

Is this what political discourse has come to? It’s bad enough when we see this kind of posturing on budget and health care bills. But we’re on the verge of launching a shooting war in which many Americans, not to mention many Iraqis, could lose their lives. And yet the partisan positioning has, if anything, intensified.”

Partisan positioning is part of the political process. There’s no getting away from it. In fact, why would we want politicians to get away from it? America’s political factions represent very real differences in world view and approaches to governing. They present very different routes to what Aristotle called “the good life.” A republican form of government such as ours posits a theory of interaction, cooperation, and balance based on the democratic principle of the value of a public political process. The fighting helps us discover/create the good life by, ideally, allowing the consideration of a wide range of views and options. That’s the theory, at least.

Now, enter television and a journalistic establishment that takes its cues from the structure of this medium. A medium structures discourse–what can be said, how it can be said, and how it can be heard. TV feeds on images and drama. What does the normal rough-and-tumble of politics become when seen through such an eye?

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