The importance of understanding politicians (and media types) as people

There I am after the show, second from left, followed by Eva Moore, Cynthia Hardy and Will Folks...

There I am after the show, second from left, followed by Eva Moore, Cynthia Hardy and Will Folks…

Having heard my limit of cynical statements bordering on paranoia, I resolved, on live radio over the weekend, to do The Most Daring Thing a Journalist Can Ever Do.

I decided to stick up for politicians. And for the media, for that matter.

I learned long ago, well before I started blogging, that the surest way to be the target of derision and contempt — from the public, and even one’s peers — is to praise someone in politics. It’s way more damaging to your reputation than criticizing people. We’re expected to do that. And those of you who know me know that I do my share of that. (In fact, some of you claim, hyperbolically, that it’s all I do, when the subject is Mark Sanford or Nikki Haley.)

But just let me say something laudatory about a politician — say, Lindsey Graham, who I believe is more deserving of such defense than anyone in high office in our state — and here comes the tsunami of cynicism. (Try to say “tsunami of cynicism” several times really fast.)

Journalists tend to relish the criticism that comes from being critical. It means we’re tough, and hard-hitting. Nobody pulls the wool over our eyes! We’re no saps. Cutting remarks make us sound like John Lennon. Saying nice things makes us sound like Paul McCartney. And everybody knows which one was the cool one, right?

Anyway, as Sunday’s show wore on, I endured a number of cynical remarks about media, politics and politicians, letting them pass by because of my long experience of knowing how hard it is to change people’s minds when they say things like, “They just stress all that negative stuff to sell papers,” or, “You can’t trust the MSM because they take advertising and are in the grip of corporate America,” or “He’s no different from all politicians; they’re all crooks.” (These are reconstructions; I wasn’t taking notes. But I’ve heard these kinds of comments SO many times.)

But finally, I couldn’t sit still, and I explained:

  • People who think advertisers control content in a newspaper have probably never worked at one. In my 35 years in newspapers, most of it as an editor, I never once was involved in a decision that was in any way influenced by money considerations, either involving advertising or circulation. (The only way money affected what we did was that the lack of it prevented us from having the people we needed, or to pay for travel, to do everything we wanted.) I DID find myself making decisions that I knew made life miserable for the ad people, and even lost the paper money. I mentioned a situation in which we took, and maintained (and the newspaper maintains to this day) an editorial position that cost the paper hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of several years. That didn’t make me happy or anything, but it had no impact on our position.
  • As for Will Folks’ assertion that we were supportive of lawmakers he despises because of the newspaper industry’s sales tax exemptions, I had to ask how he explained our ongoing repeated calls, year in and year out, for comprehensive tax reform that would put all exemptions on the table? (Doug likes to talk about that one, saying we should have called specifically for eliminating the newspaper exemption. But the truth was, I’ve never seen that one as in any way more egregious than the rest, and I would have been lying, and grandstanding, to say otherwise.)
  • Those who say this or that gets published because “it sells newspapers” don’t understand what makes journalists tick. There CAN be the temptation to be sensational, and we’re always trying to grab your attention, but not for anything so normal and sensible (the way most people see the world) as selling papers. What we wanted, what we want, is to be read. In terms of indulging my deep-seated need, no one had to buy the paper. They could steal it, just as long as they read it. Bryan loved that. After he wrote about it on his blog, I felt compelled to explain a bit. It’s not that I was advocating stealing the newspaper, mind you…
  • People talk about there being too much “bad news.” Well, I’m sorry, but to a great extent, the definition of news is something that has gone wrong. You don’t report on the 10,000 cars that pass a certain intersection safely in the course of a day; you report on the fatal wreck that occurred there. You don’t write about the thousands of buildings that didn’t catch fire; you report on the one that burned down. And you don’t write about the vast majority of politicians who are honest and doing their best; you write about the ones who are derelict and/or have their hands in the till — because that’s what people, as voters, need a heads-up about.
  • On that last point… I blame my profession, and particularly my generation of Watergate-influenced journalists, for the cynicism about government and politics that infects so many in our society today, from Will Folks and many other bloggers to the Tea Party to some of our best friends here on the blog. Maybe that’s one case where we DID overemphasize the “bad news.” We were so adversarial toward public officials and public institutions, so aggressive in chasing after scandal — and (seemingly sometimes) nothing but scandal — that we created an indelible impression among the reading and viewing public that government is a bad thing full of bad people. When it isn’t. We’re just trying to let you know about the bad parts that need addressing.

When I stated that probably 90-something percent of politicians were good people trying to do the best by their lights for their communities (even though they might, in my opinion, be really wrong about what’s best), Will erupted in derision, both on the air and on Twitter:

But I insisted it was true. I might think most of the things lawmakers try to do is stupid sometimes, but I don’t doubt their sincerity or honest intentions. As for the idea that people go into public life to enrich themselves monetarily — well, they’re really have to be stupid to do that, because the greater potential is definitely in the private sector, and the chance of getting caught is a lot lower than in public office.

Not that there aren’t some politicians for whom the pathetic renumeration that legislators receive is the best job they ever had. We had some people like that in the Legislature in the late 80s and early 90s. Lost Trust caught people selling their votes for pathetically small things, such as a new suit or some such.

Lost Trust was the low point in South Carolina, leading to indictments of 10 percent of the Legislature. But I turned that around to say that, when an aggressive federal prosecutor did his best to catch every lawmaker open to bribery or some other form of corruption… he could only get 10 percent. Which fits my 90ish-percent thesis.

Bottom line, people in politics are people, like any other. Oh, they may be more extroverted and given to exhibitionism of a sort, but they are not worse than other people. They might not be the wise solons that they should be — and I, for one, would prefer that they were a good deal wiser than average — but they’re just people.

So are journalists, for that matter, just to come full circle…

11 thoughts on “The importance of understanding politicians (and media types) as people

  1. Doug Ross

    I was hoping you weren’t going to say something positive about Lindsey Graham and spoil my day.

    1. Barry

      I will.

      Linsdsey and his office staff went out of their way to help my grandfather out with some issues he had before he passed away several years ago.

      They went above and beyond to help him when others had basically ignored his issue.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Folks, I apologize for the confusion. I had only written about a third of this post when I inadvertently published it. It already had the above comments when I pulled it back to finish it.


  3. Kathryn Braun Fenner

    Okay, I agree that back when you worked at The State, selling newspapers was not the focus of the news staff, but I sense this has changed, at least as far as the news editors go. The front page seldom contains even half truly top news stories, and is usually more then two thirds sports and light human interest fluff.
    I agree with you about most politicians’ good intentions, but I bow to Juan, and point out that a fair number of young lawyers serve in the legislature, or even local office, as much for career building as because of a burning desire to serve the public.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You have to remember that I have never been an editor who was responsible for sports (except when I was the night editor in Wichita, and sports people would consult me on how to handle late developments).

      I’ve never been responsible for deciding how much of the newsroom budget to spend on sports.

      And while I was the front-page editor at a couple of newspapers back in the 80s, it was during the days when hard news — which is my interest, my oeuvre, my idiom — still dominated.

      A number of things have happened since then, with newspapers doing a great deal of navel-gazing about how to better engage female readers, and young readers, and minority readers. News got softer, more touch-feely, more news-you-can use. Less about throwweights and such.

      And you could say that was about selling papers — it certainly was from the business side, because they were worried about demographic trends. But to most editors, I think it was really about trying to more fully serve their communities.

      All of this was going on in the mid-90s, at the same time as the “public journalism” movement. That involved trying to expand the definition of news, and coverage of public life, so that it WASN’T just about the latest scandal or controversy. It was about showing all the good in public life as well as the bad.

      But it came along at a bad time, as we were starting to downsize staffs. The thing is, you HAVE to cover the scandal (the REAL scandal, I mean — bad policy rather than peccadilloes). It’s too important. Not to do so is to protect the powerful to the detriment of society.

      And increasingly, once we did that, we seldom had the resources left to write about the honest politicians, and the programs that were working…

      1. Kathryn Braun Fenner

        Just check last week’s front pages, or any otter weeks’ worth, and tell me your take….

      2. Brad Warthen

        I was a front page editor during the Cold War. We saw the world differently.

        And yes, sometimes, in some ways, I miss the Cold War. Not as much as Putin does, that crazy cutup, but some…

        1. Kathryn Braun Fenner

          But instead we get sports color features and heartwarming local stories, with a squib about a couple of the real stories–Pinson, Harrell, Ukraine, Iraq, with a short continuation inside.
          I get more SC news from Stephen Colbert!

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