Did You Have a Good Week? The New Unit of Political Significance

WHEN I read the newspaper at home, I always start with sports. But when I’ve been away for a while and am going through old papers, I find I can flip right past the sports pages. The close games and league races that are so absorbing when they are happening right now are boring once the suspense is gone.

More and more, it’s the same with the real news. I’m not talking about covering political campaigns as if they were sporting events. This tendency has existed for decades and is well understood. Rather, I mean a development whereby most of the serious news we get is presented with the same artificial, short-lived intensity as sports. Precisely because we know that sports don’t matter in a life-and-death sense, we can happily act for a while as if they did. In a few minutes it will all be over, and soon we’ll have some other, equally interesting showdown to watch.

Through May and early June of this year, for example, the United States seemed headed toward a nuclear confrontation with North Korea. Numerous reports said that President Bill Clinton had come to his “testing time” and “moment of truth.” Of course, the “day of reckoning,”as The Wall Street Journal’s political analyst Gerald Seib called it, did not come. I interviewed a South Korean diplomat, in Seoul, just after former President Jimmy Carter’s visit, and he described the moment when he knew that the crisis had passed.

“It was when the O. J. Simpson car chase began,” he said. “As soon as the American media had O. J. to deal with, you could feel the weight of CNN and the American pundits come off our shoulders.”

North Korea’s nuclear program returned to its natural dimensions, as a serious longterm problem but not one that required a response right now. By the time the American opinion machine was ready to deal with an issue other than O. J., the Whitewater hearings were at hand, along with the buildup for an invasion of Haiti. North Korea’s nuclear rods, it goes without saying, were still there.

The Clinton years have come across as an endless stream of emergencies, each seeming to demand total attention while it is under way, but many forgettable as soon as they are done.

Zoë Baird. Kimba Wood. Travelgate. The haircut on the LAX tarmac. David Koresh and the Waco siege. Documentshredding at the Rose law firm. The death of Vincent Foster. Webster Hubbell. Barbra Streisand at the White House. The secrecy of the health-care task force. Casualties in Somalia. Criticism of Les Aspin and Warren Christopher. The Administration’s fights for its political life over the first budget bill, over NAFTA, over the crime bill, over health reform. The showdown with China over human rights and with Singapore over caning. The latest skirmish in the trade war with Japan. Threats of action against Serbia, Haiti, North Korea, Cuba. Paula Jones. Whitewater recusals. Joshua Steiner and his diary. The disasters in Bosnia and Rwanda.

This list looks preposterously jumbled, and that is the point of it. Some of the events, in the Balkans and Rwanda, were world tragedies. Others, involving the Branch Davidians and Vincent Foster, were tragic on a smaller scale. Some—including the budget plan, health care, and NAFTA—will play a part in any account of the Clinton years. Others were temporary flaps, including quite a few whose plot lines are difficult to keep straight even now.

Yet every one of these issues, at least for a while, got right-now treatment by the press. We all recognize the signs that an issue has become an Issue: CNN specials, live C-SPAN or NPR hearings coverage, same-day discussion on Nightline and Crossfire, end-of-theweek wrap-ups on the Washington talk shows.

Journalists claim that they do their jobs by raising questions and looking on skeptically, and that the President and other politicians must do theirs by providing satisfactory answers. This sounds nice. Yet by moving constantly from one emergency to the next, our opinion system has changed the very nature of the political and governmental fight.

For politicians and the public, the struggle is not so much to make or hear convincing arguments. It is to concentrate on anything at all. By the time the Clinton health plan floundered, in August, the conventional wisdom was that the President had waited too long before turning his full attention to it. I wonder why! Hearing about the latest crisis on talk shows and op-ed pages is for the public like living with car alarms in New York: the constant warnings are enough to make you uneasy—but not quite enough to inspire action.

The right-now atmosphere has had at least two measurable effects, both bad, on the progress of Bill Clinton’s Administration. First, it has played a part in the repeated premature obituaries for his presidency issued by the press. In May of last year, when Clinton had served eight percent of a four-year term, Elizabeth Drew was asked on the McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour what was at stake in the upcoming House vote on his budget plan. “Nothing less than the Clinton presidency,” she replied.

In fairness to her, it was not an overstatement by the standards of the time. Within the month Time had published its cover story on “The Incredible Shrinking President,” and Newsweek had run a cover picture of Clinton with the caption “What’s Wrong?” Then David Gergen came to the White House, Clinton was declared to have made a new start, and the obituaries were forgotten—until they were rolled out again later that year and throughout the current one.

Bill Clinton is known to feel that the press is biased against him. Every President since John Kennedy has felt the same way. Maybe, by now, some reporters and columnists do dislike Clinton and his associates. If so, it’s a trivial point. The real problem is that so many members of the press are comfortable making overstatements they must know cannot be true.

The other effect has been to add a curious edginess to the public mood. The opinion industry has become a powerful but unacknowledged lobby in behalf of U.S. intervention, for intervention’s sake, around the world. On talk shows and TV specials we see a nightmarish sequence of emergencies appearing out of nowhere. Their backgrounds are not explained, and each crowds the others for airtime. The bridge at Gorazde. The Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire. Flotillas from Guantanamo Bay.

The implied message of each of these scenes is “Do something now!” The message is conveyed not only by the suffering itself but also by commentators who say that each case is a test of the President’s “character” and “decisiveness.” Some of the cases may demand immediate American action to relieve suffering. But the game-day mentality of the press has created a general enthusiasm for intervention almost as strong as the post-Vietnam fear of foreign entanglements. The enthusiasm sometimes wears off as an actual commitment nears, as with the intervention in Haiti. But while an Administration is deciding whether and how to get involved, the press chorus is saying, Act now!

I keep mentioning the political talk shows because they have been the most important force for turning real news into sports. Some of their effects are obvious. The McLaughlin Group, The Capital Gang, Crossfire, the Sundaymorning talk shows, and the countless local knockoffs of the Washington battling-journalists shows reward reporters for exhibiting all the wrong traits. These talk shows highlight personality rather than work product, opinion and altitude rather than reporting, and prediction—which is less accurate than the bookies’ line on games and for which the journalists are less accountable than bookies—instead of analysis of what has actually occurred.

The Fox network and ESPN spend hours each Sunday on the buildup to the day’s slate of NFL football games and, when the games are done, dispose of the results in a few minutes. The political talk shows follow the same plan. Since each of the Washington shows covers more topics than any of the reporters can know about in detail, discussion naturally drifts to the one subject all the reporters do know: the pure mechanics of politics. (“How is Bob Dole likely to respond to this healthreform plan, Cokie?”)

But the worst effect of the shows is so profound that it is barely noticed. This is to make the week the fundamental unit of political measurement. The central question on most of the shows is whether the President had a good week or a bad week. Getting a treaty ratified can mean a good week; a Travelgatestyle staff shakeup can make a bad week. As in sports, the wins and losses are toted up as if they all had equal weight.

“It is rarely acknowledged, but asking ‘Who won the week?’ is a political act,” Jay Rosen, of New York University, wrote last year in the magazine Tikkun. “The question . . . sets a rhythm to politics that permits the media to play timekeeper, umpire and, finally, judge. The question would not occur to an ordinary citizen.”

Ordinary citizens, Rosen said, realize that politics concerns values and choices, not simply the up and down of each tactical fight. Will I pay more taxes? What will schools or health care be like? Will the Army have to stay and fight in Haiti or Bosnia? Most journalists recognize these issues, at least in theory. “But in . . . their day-to-day view of the scene,” Rosen concluded, they “have accumulated a huge stake in the denial of meaning, the hollowing out of politics into a game of perceptions, to be played inside the media itself.” They are, in other words, just playing the game.