Monday, November 06, 2006

When Discourse Isn't

There now ensued between the squire and the parson a most excellent political discourse, framed out of newspapers and political pamphlets; in which they made a libation of four bottles of wine to the good of their country: and then, the squire being fast asleep, the parson lighted his pipe, mounted his horse, and rode home.
--Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, Book IV Chapter X

Richard at Philosophy Unlimited is hosting the next Carnival of the Liberals, and he's asked for posts that "assess the state of political discourse, or the question of politics should be conducted." So I'll give it a shot.

Political discourse ...

It's been rough lately in this country, hasn't it? Vicious, nasty, personal, full of lies... But that's nothing new for us. There were many years when political broadsides full of nasty personal innuendo and attack were launched by candidates in newspapers and pamphlets signed by anonymous authors. Even George Washington didn't avoid being attacked: though no one would run against him per se, Thomas Jefferson's supporters (likely with his approval, and Madison's) spread rumors that Washington was senile and Adams was running the country into the ground without Washington's knowledge. It continued, more personally, for decades: the Jackson-Adams campaign was as dirty as it gets, with Jackson's campaign managers bestowing the nickname of "The Pimp" on JQ Adams (a reference to an allegation that he had once forced a young woman into having an affair with a Russian nobleman) and the Adams campaign calling Jackson's mother "a common prostitute" and portraying him as a hedonist and a crazed killer. That's dirty, even by today's standards.

Things got somewhat better once the candidates began having to speak for themselves. But of late the pendulum is swinging back, with the invention of "independent" political action committees who can make attack ads the candidate can deny any knowledge of - "plausibly" in the modern parlance, but plausibly enough to convince anyone? Possibly not, but then again did anyone really believe, in 1800, that Jefferson had no knowledge of the smears made in his name?

What is different now is the medium through which political discourse, such as it is, is conducted. No longer are newspapers and pamphlets the primary means of disseminating information. This is unfortunate, I believe, as far as political discourse is concerned, because they are media which allow for careful perusal and absorption; one can get the nuances from print, spend time rereading and studying it, analyzing and even rebutting it.

But radio and its even more immediate child, television, are fleeting. There is no time to reflect on what you have heard, nor can you isolate and replay. Emotion is close to the surface, and emotion drives the message. This is not to say, of course, that written words have no emotion; quite the contrary. And much of what was printed in early politics was transcripts of speeches. But it is the delivery of those words that matter: the fiery eloquence of a Douglas in print is still eloquent, but less rousing, perhaps, less apt to lead to riots.

Many of today's most ferocious speakers don't read well when they are reproduced in print. Rhetorical devices that play on the cognitive differences between how you hear and how you read make printed orations less exciting, and carefully crafted essays are hard to follow when you listen to them. Simple and repetitive works best in radio, and the logical end of that is the five-second sound bite. Slogans replace sentences.

And adding visuals makes the words even less important.

Television is primarily a visual medium. Reagan, for instance, was brilliant at that. He often exploited the visuals to create an entirely opposite impression in his viewers. In fact,
Lesley Stahl once did a piece for the "CBS Evening News" that tried to point out the contradiction between the messages implied in the photo opportunities and the actual policies of the president. Pictures of the president at the Handicapped Olympics and the opening of an old age home were matched with Stahl's voice over of budget cuts for the disabled and elderly. As she found out later the report was a failure.1
We just didn't get the enormity of the visual impact over the verbal. [We] would run these pieces and say, 'While the president went fishing today back in the White House things were falling apart,' but no one would hear us.... I did a piece where I was quite negative... about Reagan and yet the pictures were terrific... I thought they'd be mad at me, but they weren't. They loved it.... [An official] said to me, 'They didn't hear you. They only saw [the] pictures'.2
A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. And when the picture goes on as long as the words, and no-one gets a thousand words anyway (In fact a typical broadcast news story is only 30 seconds long. Even though newspapers can provide more contextual information than TV news, the average print report is only 400 words3 (as opposed to around 170-200 words in the 30-second spoken story)), the pictures win.

So: when it's a handful of words superimposed on emotion-inducing pictures, is it still discourse? Discourse is defined as
[1 & 2 archaic]
3 a: verbal interchange of ideas; often : CONVERSATION b : an instance of such interchange
4 a : the expression of ideas; especially : formal and orderly expression in speech or writing b : a talk or piece of writing in which a subject is treated at some length usually in an orderly fashion4
Neither radio nor television is "discourse", for neither permits exchange of ideas, or in fact exchange of anything. It's only a lecture - not even that; it's an harangue, a deluge of sensations and emotions designed to change not your mind, but your gut.

And that's unfortunate, too.

More unfortunate is the way the press chooses what it will talk about in the first place. It's as if they take their lead from the party in power, dominating the television and radio with meaningless, emotion-laden manufactured crises and ignoring any real news. As Frank Rich pointed out Sunday,
On the same day Mr. Kerry blundered, the United States suffered a palpable and major defeat in Iraq. The Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, once again doing the bidding of the anti-American leader Moktada al-Sadr, somehow coerced American forces into dismantling their cordon of Sadr City, where they were searching for a kidnapped soldier. As the melodramatic debates over how much Mr. Kerry should apologize dragged on longer, still more real news got short shrift: the October death toll for Americans in Iraq was the highest in nearly two years. Some 90 percent of the dead were enlisted men and nearly a third were on extended tours of duty or their second or third tours. Their average age was 24.5
Is the news part of political discourse? Is whipping up a frenzy about an essentially trivial misstatement by a non-candidate? Unfortunately, whatever the answer to the former is, the answer to the latter is "Yes".

What is the most unfortunate part of this all, I believe, is that the print media have totally abandoned their responsibility to the public good.

Because what is happening now with the country's "political discourse" is this: radio and television spots lie - either with or without the candidate's knowledge and approval - and nobody calls them on it. That's the news media's job - to tell the people the truth. It's not manufacture "news" to sell ads or earn money for stockholders or enrich publishers. And it's certainly not to bow before some false, strained notion of "fairness" that insists on "hearing both sides" - sometimes, there is only one side; fairness is not halfway between the lie and the fact.

Their obligation is to tell the truth.

I was listening to the BBC last week, and Dan Damon was talking to someone who deals in media in the UK. He was asking if nothing regulated American political ads. She told him no, that "political speech in general is protected speech in the US," which means it doesn't have to even be true. It is assumed, she told the incredulous Damon, that the listener will know the facts, or that the maligned candidate will respond with the truth.

But what that means, Damon said, is that the listener hears two diametrically opposed sound-bites, and has no guidance as to which is true. Doesn't it?

It does, she agreed.

But it shouldn't.

Newspapers should call ads which are lies what they are. That's their obligation.

And it would go a long way towards fixing the state of political discourse in this country.

I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion. Enlighten the people generally and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.
– Thomas Jefferson

1 Television and the Presidency: How the News Affects Our Perceptions, E-World
© 1992-2006 by Glenn Elert (

2 Moyers, Bill, exec. edit. "Illusions of News." Prod. Paul Budline. The Public Mind: Image & Reality. Prod. Richard Cohen. Exec. prod. Alvin H. Perlmutter and Public Affairs Television Inc. PBS. WETA, Washington, and WNET, New York. 22 November 1989

3 Talking With Kids - About the News (

4 "discourse." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. (6 Nov. 2006).

5 Throw the Truthiness Bums Out, By FRANK RICH
The New York Times. Published: November 5, 2006

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