Character Flaws We Celebrate

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The press treats self-promotion and combativeness like virtues. Why?

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On his Twitter feed, Howard Kurtz writes, "You've gotta say this for Trump: He takes reporters' calls, doesn't hide behind flacks. He relishes the combat and never tires of promotion." I understand why journalists value candidates who make themselves available for questioning. Doing so can expose valuable information to the public. But I never understand why so many of my colleagues in the press celebrate the embrace of politics as war, or treat relentless self-promotion as if it's a boon.

Isn't it actually a character defect, even if it does cause someone to talk to journalists a bit more often?

Ponder this line again: "He relishes the combat and never tires of promotion." Aren't those things to be said against Trump? Wouldn't we prefer presidential candidates who see "combat" in politics as a necessary evil? Or better yet, candidates who forcefully engage journalists and their political opponents in substantive debate, but reject the "combat" metaphor as a lazy cliche that obscures more than it illuminates? After all, the end shouldn't be to destroy one another. 

In my profile of Gary Johnson, I illustrated his aversion to self-promotion. Isn't that character trait preferable to tireless self-promotion? In fact, wouldn't it be a bad thing if the president of the United States focused a large part of his energy on zealously promoting himself? What if political reporters lauded folks for putting more value in achieving an objective than in getting credit for it?

Perhaps we'd get marginally better candidates.  

I don't mean to pick on Kurtz, whose article length take on Trump makes none of these assertions. I'm interrogating a tweet here, and it probably doesn't capture any deep belief he harbors. (Perhaps the whole problem is that he used the word "combat" without actually thinking through what the metaphor implies.) It's noteworthy only because it is an instinct I see often in the political press. Let's stop treating political "combat" and self-promotion as if they're praiseworthy ends in themselves. The notion that politicians actually enjoy these things is one reason many of us find so many of them to have mixed up values.

Image credit: Joe Skipper/Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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