As you may have read in the daily press, my friend Bill O’Shaughnessy (hey, don’t think I don’t know what you’re thinking) has come up with an idea that may change forever, or until next year, the way political campaigns are covered.
Which is to say, he’s ignoring them. Or, more precisely, he chose to ignore Hillary Clinton’s march through New York on the grounds that it was nothing more than an exercise in media manipulation. Mr. O’Shaughnessy, the owner, news director and editorial voice of WVOX-AM and WRTN-FM in Westchester, called the First Lady’s campaign swing “a charade” that did “nothing to inform the electorate.”
“In recent weeks,” he said, “our colleagues … have begun to resemble a bunch of damn ducks crossing the road, one after the other, yelling ‘quack, quack, quack’ and hoping for a morsel from the First Lady …” So Mr. O’Shaughnessy ordered his own ducks back to the studio. It’s good to be the, er, top duck.
The sound you hear in the distance is the muffled cheer of a thousand chief financial officers of a thousand media companies. Political coverage, after all, is a considerable drain on the bottom line, and a general adoption of the O’Shaughnessy Precedent would allow media C.F.O.’s to devote money to more-pressing needs, to wit, interior decoration, expanded expense accounts and the very expensive nurturing of Harvard-educated television writers who have discovered the hidden humor in fart jokes.
Of course, as Mr. O’Shaughnessy knows, political coverage also drains energy, morale and, yes, idealism from the bedraggled wretches who are doing the covering. There’s a reason why campaign reporters convey all the joy of soldiers on a forced march. They know that they are at the mercy of professional manipulators and that the events they cover are as carefully scripted as any self-respecting wrestling match. Modern political campaigns are not about imparting information. They are about projecting images, which can be done only with the media’s cooperation. The transformation of the great American political convention into a television commercial is the most obvious example of the media’s passive role in today’s politics.
David Garth long ago grasped the importance of controlling what the political consultants call, tellingly, “free media.” That’s what you and I call “news.” The images and messages delivered in paid advertisements were not enough for Mr. Garth; they were to be supplemented with complementary images and messages conveyed for free through control of the news media. Mr. Garth’s insights of 30 years ago are standard operating procedure for his many successors and imitators. Hence, the “listening tour” that so offended Mr. O’Shaughnessy.
The extent to which all political campaigns, not just Mrs. Clinton’s exploratory tour, are artificial and packaged can be measured by the attention paid to dumb gaffes and innocent slips of the tongue. They generally are presented as genuine and perhaps even telling moments in an otherwise tightly controlled world. Did Rudy Giuliani mistake Monroe County for the town of Monroe in Orange County? Get me rewrite! At last, real news! An authentic moment! Playing gotcha is the political reporter’s antidote to the tedium of unrelenting manipulation.
Here’s a thought: What if the O’Shaughnessy Precedent were applied across the board? What if the media declined to cover media events? What would happen to the fine art of political grandstanding? Take it another step: What if editors were courageous enough to tell their reporters that access to professional liars wasn’t important, that the bargains made for insider knowledge were too corrupt, that exclusive invitations to witness supposedly genuine moments were, by definition, inauthentic?
Some of these questions were raised implicitly in Elizabeth Kolbert’s terrific piece on Andrew Cuomo, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in the July 19 issue of The New Yorker . Ms. Kolbert accompanied Mr. Cuomo to a made-for-media tour of an impoverished woman’s apartment in the wounded city of upstate Newburgh. This prearranged invasion of the woman’s squalid quarters was designed to make a policy point, but Ms. Kolbert understood that she and her colleagues were being manipulated. “As we all milled around the living room, it was hard to know exactly how to react,” she wrote. The tenant, a woman named Theresa Parker, felt equally uncomfortable about her role as a prop in a media event. Later on in the piece, Ms. Kolbert notes that she was invited to sit in on a meeting between Mr. Cuomo and several aides. This, of course, was intended to show the unscripted, unrehearsed Mr. Cuomo at work, joking with staff, acting modest and being your ordinary, run-of-the-mill great guy. Ms. Kolbert, however, was more than a match for this silly exercise. She dutifully noted that Mr. Cuomo was charming and funny, but added the wonderful caveat: “at least in front of me.”
If the O’Shaughnessy Precedent is established as an industry standard, we no longer would be treated to stage-managed theater posing as news. Instead, maybe we’d get-gasp!-a real debate.