A Colossal Misunderstanding

Christine O’Donnell’s strange exit from Piers Morgan’s show on CNN made clear to me more than ever some of the collateral damage done by the “de-professionalization” of the news media over the past decade:

She, like Sarah Palin, like Michele Bachmann, does not understand the role of the news media, but believes it should be nothing more than a conduit for her own viewpoints and under her own control.  She does not understand the adversarial tradition of the American news media that has grown with the nation and that long served us very well.  All she wanted to do was promote her book.  She does not understand that, as a public figure, she does not get to do that, in a traditional media context, without having to respond to what can be, sometimes, tough questioning.

Public figures have long wanted to control the media, but they recognized the limits of what they could manage.  And they had no choice but to operate within a limited media milieu.  Even if they founded their own publications, the power of the independent press, by the time of the Civil War, made their own efforts at establishing a useful media presence almost laughable.  What existed was something of a balance of power, the watchdogs having real teeth.

Today, with the diminution or diffusion of traditional news-media strength, politicians are finding ways of reaching the public that completely bypass what once were immovable barriers.  Ones with more experience, that is, those who honed their political skills before the new-media explosion of the last decade.  These are able to negotiate the traditional news media–those who are successful, that is–and to make use of the new possibilities in conjunction.

Newer political figures, especially those who have come to prominence in association with the Tea Party, have a disdain for the “lamestream” (to use Palin’s neologism) media, for it does not act to serve their purposes the way malleable new media avenues can be made to.  They operate under a colossal misunderstanding of the role of the news media in American politics, a misunderstanding similar to the one that led the Tea Party in Congress to refuse to negotiate in relation to raising the debt ceiling.  They see their role as one of imposing their beliefs, not of defending them or of negotiating with the beliefs of others.  They are right, and any challenge to them is, in their minds, traitorous.

They have come to prominence within intellectual cocoons, cocoons that the media, in the past, were able to break–or the person himself or herself eventually broke themselves by bashing against the broader debate, as happened to Father Coughlin when World War II started.  This has yet to happen to the current crop, their illusions continuing to both grow and harden.

The real contribution of the news media over the past century and a half was that it forced people into a national debate–for both good and ill (the Civil War, of course, was a failure of debate in certain respects).  For the most part, this has been necessary.  Today, a newer sort of politician, such as Christine O’Donnell, feels that he or she needn’t participate in the debate at all, merely needing to ‘get the message out.’

Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Herbert Cain, and others all seem to believe that the ‘real’ country is behind them, that Americans, if they get the chance to hear them, will be behind them.  When they lose, it is because the media have thwarted them, that the people have been misled.  That may be, to some degree, but their real defeat may come from the fact that they have not been willing participants in a debate that can and should change their own views as they change those of others.  Or, at least, that leads to compromise that both sides can support.

The consensus view of American history and politics has long been shown to have been nonsense, but the necessity for compromise in the process of any success has not.  In fact, it has been the great strength of this country.  When we can compromise, we move ahead.  We we cannot, the country breaks apart, as it did during the Civil War.  As may be happening now.

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