A Republican politician who inherited a family tradition of moderation was fuming with frustration: “What a crazy place Congress is! My wonderful dad has to be turning over in his grave, and I am a close second!” Hosts and producers “really don’t want us moderates on TV,” the politician added, because they refuse to say outrageous things just to get tube time.
A press critic who lives in a fancy house on Pennsylvania Avenue agrees completely. In recent interviews, President Obama has returned repeatedly to a favorite theme: In the current media culture, “the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention” (as he put it on “60 Minutes”). That makes it far harder for pragmatists in both parties to find common ground and solve the nation’s most intractable problems.
American politics has always been a contact sport. During the 1884 campaign, Grover Cleveland was accused of fathering an illegitimate child and greeted with the taunt, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” His opponent, James G. Blaine, was depicted as a tattooed man, covered with the indelible stains of scandal.
Still, there is a lot of truth in what the Republican, and the president, had to say. Look at Rep. Joe Wilson, the backbencher from South Carolina who rocketed to fame by uttering two words, “you lie,” during the president’s healthcare address to Congress. Following his outburst, Wilson probably got more ink and airtime than all House moderates put together.
“See, this is part of what happens,” Obama said of the Wilson incident. “It just ... becomes a big circus instead of us focusing on health care.”
This “big circus” stems partly from a positive development. Technology has broken the stranglehold over information once enjoyed by the big newspapers and networks. Far more voices, reflecting a wider range of viewpoints, now participate in the national debate. But there is also a downside to this fragmentation of the market.
Walter Cronkite, who died earlier this year, never had to shout to get attention. When he was an anchor for CBS, four out of five Americans watched one of the network news shows. They didn’t have a choice; his audience was guaranteed.
Today’s audience has countless options for gathering information: from Webcasts and YouTube to Facebook feeds and iPhone apps. The Glenn Becks on the right and Keith Olbermanns on the left have to scratch and claw for every ear and eyeball. The temptation to be loud and shrill – to do a Joe Wilson – is overwhelming. As the president told Bob Schieffer on CBS’ “Face the Nation”: “They can’t get enough of conflict; it’s catnip to the media right now.”..