Conflict feeds news coverage but also democracy

December 20, 2009


Last evening I watched on C-SPAN a panel discussion on partisanship in our political system and how to reduce the “poison” in public discourse. One speaker said that as long as conflict equals press coverage, then there will be an incentive for political views to be outrageous and noisy, since those are the qualities that get attention. I would be interested in your opinion about this, i.e., whether conflict is what journalists are most interested in.

This e-mail arrived in my mailbox the other morning from one of my most thoughtful friends, and it set me to thinking: How much of the current political discord, the soundtrack of our time, is the fault of the press? Is it possible that a class of Americans whose job it is to observe, not to participate, has in fact affected the way we live today as much as it has covered it?

This is an important question, but a complicated one. It is a question that gets to the heart of what the press believes, what the press does and what effect the press has on the culture that it covers. It challenges our precepts and principles, and it forces us to confront truths that we often prefer to ignore.

Where there’s a reporter…

I begin my answer with an anecdote from my youth, when I was a town reporter for a small newspaper and required to cover local government meetings. Often these meetings were long and almost always dry, and I remember that a young man’s attention sometimes wandered to baseball, the beach and girls, three far more beguiling topics than variances and valuations.

But what I remember most vividly was a wise man in the back of the room, who told me as the officials droned on that if I really wanted this meeting to end swiftly I should simply leave, as the windbags around the table would stop talking the minute the local newspaper was not there.

I think there is something to that — a kind of Heisenberg Theory of public life, positing that the very act of observing something changes the object being observed.

I have no doubt that some of the bickering in Congress would subside if the lawmakers doing the bickering were doing so without the presence of C-SPAN or reporters. They are playing to the crowd — and to the people who supply them with campaign funding or votes.

Forums for conflict

But the press ought not to be pilloried merely for following Woody Allen’s principle that 80 percent of success consists merely of showing up. We’re supposed to show up — at congressional hearings, at press conferences, at debates. But at forums that we control, whether on television or in the pages of our newspapers or online, we do no one any service by setting up confrontations for our own ratings or, let it be said, for our own amusement or pleasure.

This occurs more often than you might think. Almost every point-counterpoint session, every set of pro-con columns, is a lazy artifice the press uses that simplifies debate into one of two sides — oppose abortion rights or support them, oppose an Iraq surge or support it, oppose protectionism or support it. John F. Kennedy was right when he said that to govern is to choose, but by that he did not suggest the choices had to be shallow and binary. While some difficult questions are black and white, many smart answers are gray.

I am often asked at public events whether it is true that the press is biased. This question usually assumes that the bias is liberal, which is generally more true than false but neither fully true nor fully false. (It is not a coincidence that sensible clothes are often gray.) But I go on to say that our true bias isn’t to the right or to the left, no matter what the screaming critics on both sides insist. Our real bias is toward change.

We not only believe in change, we also need change. We need change because if today’s world is unchanged from yesterday’s, we have nothing for our front page, nothing for our newscasts, nothing for our blogs, nothing for our radio broadcasts. We need news.

We also need controversy — to spice up the dull business of government and commerce, to add some interest to our program or paper, to make our pages, telecasts and Web sites attractive to readers, viewers and advertisers. This addiction to change and to controversy is the bias that dare not speak its name.

But the blame isn’t only on our side. The political class, with which the press is in an uncomfortable and often unseemly embrace, bears a good deal of the responsibility as well, particularly in recent years.

Rigid political parties

The big change in our time is the development of ideologically rigid political parties. In our parents’ and grandparents’ times there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, two liberal presidents, made common cause with liberal Republicans and battled conservative Democrats to win the twin pillars of American aging, Social Security and Medicare, and, in LBJ’s case, civil-rights legislation.

Today, President Barack Obama has no liberal Republicans, or darn few of them, to woo to his side, and the result is a political debate that not only is impassioned but also deeply partisan.

Political scientists taught a generation of Americans that what the country really needed was a set of ideologically aligned parties rather than the mushy parties we had. Now they have their wish, and the result, which makes many of us yearn for another time and another sense of civility, reminds us that politics is too important to be left to the political scientists.

So back to my friend’s question.

Yes, conflict produces press coverage, because of our own peculiar temperaments, needs and biases. But conflict also is part of democracy and a result of the peculiar ways American politics has developed, giving us a rarity in American political culture: a robust liberalism and a robust conservatism at the same time.

Some of the American political conversation is uncivil, to be sure, but incivility has been a part of American political life for centuries, sometimes resulting even in spitting and caning on Capitol Hill. But for all the incivility, our yeasty life is evidence of a great political civilization. It is ugly, but it is also beautiful.


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