Politics is the hot ticket in journalism these days. Young reporters long to cover Capitol Hill, when once they longed for the exotic life of the foreign correspondent.
“Timbuktu or bust” has become“Washington or fail.” Journalism’s stars today are those who can reel off the precincts of Iowa or the hobbies of senators, not the wonders of rural Sri Lanka.
Yet the passion for politics that has seized the Washington press corps and those who want to join it across the country has not been reflected in the public — not, at any rate, by the abysmally low national turnout of 36.3 percent on Nov. 4, arguably one of the most important midterm elections in a long time.
It was the lowest voter turnout in 72 years: a seeming monument to voter apathy. Certainly not the sign of a seething, unhappy electorate that believes the bums should be thrown out because the country is on the wrong track. That may be so, but you wouldn’t know it from the voter turnout.
The voter turnout wasn’t large enough for anyone to claim that the country has veered to the right, or that the victors have a mandate. Yet we know President Obama is held in low esteem, although not as low as the risible contempt in which Congress is held.
If the voters didn’t come out in large enough numbers to give us a clear reading, how do we know that Obama is on the ropes and that Congress is despised? We know it, without doubt, from the innumerable opinion polls which are now part of the journalistic toolbox.
There is no doubt about the public mood. So why didn’t the public vote when there was so much journalistic enthusiasm for the election; when an amazing amount of television time, especially on cable, was given to politics; and when radio goes at politics 24-7?
The paradox may be journalism and its commitment to opinion polls, largely funded by the media. If you know who is going to win the match, why buy a ticket?
The passion in journalism for politics has made politics a victim, robbed it of surprise and tension. I voted without passion because I had a very complete picture of the outcome before I did my civic duty. It was like reading an otherwise gripping who-done-it, when I already knew it was the butler.
The metadata people, like Nate Silver, aren’t helping either.
When newspapers are cutting their staffs and budgets are tight, why is political coverage and polling out of Washington thriving? First, it is cheaper to create news than find it. With polls, you scoop the election result. Second, there is a large pot of money for “political issues” advertising that has given rises to a raft of new outlets, forcing old-line media to double down.
Washington politics is no longer a franchise of The Washington Post and The New York Times. It has its own trade press, led by the upstart and well-funded Politico, a big news predator in a school of hungry fish. There is The Hill, Roll Call, National Journal, RealClearPolitics and more than a dozen others, like The Cook Political Report and Talking Points Memo.
It is these new entrants, with their access to instant electronic delivery, that have led the change and fueled the frenzy. They are in danger of becoming the game instead of covering it. They have become more interested in what the polls say than what the politicians say.
On Capitol Hill, members of Congress are in bunker mode. They are afraid to say anything or look a bit tired, distressed or unkempt because these ill-considered words and unflattering images will be flashed across the Internet – there to be retrieved at any time, for all time.
There is a joke around Washington that if a member of Congress breaks wind, Politico will have the story. In this new world, every trifle is recorded and archived. Is this the way to foster statecraft in a dangerous and unforgiving world? Let’s poll that question, shall we?
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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