I guess I finally understand what it feels like to be a typical American… or perhaps a stereotypical one. You know: the kind of person who is disappointed not only with politics, but with political discourse. Let me explain.
I grew up in a family where politics was a passion, a mission, and a sport. From the time I was in elementary school, I sat at my grandparents’ table with the extended family and heard my uncle deconstruct his time in Vietnam; my grandparents discuss the civil service jobs they had; and everyone talk about politics — national and local. Of course, the conversation often circled back around to whether the black community was being well-served by the people in power. The meal may have been my grandmother’s special lasagna, or chicken, or (just once) a venison stew made from deer another uncle had hunted and dressed. But the real meat at the table was politics and power.
After that kind of childhood, plus four years of college improv, perhaps it was not entirely improbable that I would end up as a political analyst on CNN. After all, punditry requires knowledge but mainly a quickness and cunning, the willingness to wrestle publicly with ideas whether your opponent is smarter and stronger than you or not. The circumstances of me getting this job were hard work mixed with a HUGE dose of good fortune. I wrote a book (Don’t Believe the Hype) that got me on CNN as a guest. I impressed the bookers. They offered me a job. I got to cover the 1996 conventions… and then I was off to the races.
I remember my work back then being so much fun. I never took for granted the gift I’d been given. I knew part of my appeal was intellect, and part was flavor-of-the-week — a 25 year old black woman with braids who could credibly talk about the electoral college.
I’ve had many adventures since then, working as a television correspondent, radio host, and producing multimedia content. But the apex of my love affair with political journalism was those early years at CNN, when former print journalists like Brooks Jackson regularly took the airaves based not on their ability to look sharp in a suit but to bring a sharp analysis of money, politics, and power. That was the pre-merger era, when CNN was not a part of Time Warner. I left before the merger, and for that reason and others many things have changed. CNN is now struggling to define itself against two more partisan cable networks, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Both of those two seem more comfortable in their skins (which is to say, their brand identities), while CNN struggles to figure out what the middle path is in a land of shouting heads.
Aaah, the shouting heads…The punditry game has changed. It always had an edge, or else it would be reportage and not punditry. But the signal to noise ratio has degraded appreciably over the past fifteen years. Some players, from both the left and right, aim to make their name by throwing out a fistful of steaming entrails and then immediately apologizing for the mess. What’s not to like, as a strategy? You make headlines twice — once when you make the statement, and once when you apologize. Two recent examples: Romney surrogate John Sununu, former Governor of New Hampshire and Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush, said he wished President Obama “would learn how to be an American.” He’d apologized for that remark before the day was done. (Sununu more recently attacked the President for “over-aggrandizing” his role in the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Does he remember when President Bush put up the “Mission Accomplished” sign right at what turned out to be the start of the Iraq war?) And then there’s Touré of MSNBC, who last week said that the Romney campaign was attempting the “niggerization” of President Obama. He apologized (perhaps after a stern word by his minders) almost immediately. In both cases, double headlines for the statements and the apologies. In both cases, more heat than light.
Don’t think I’m (just) a hater. I have mad love for politics still — productive politics that build our nation. I still love a good political discussion, which you can find on programs including ones hosted by Melissa Harris-Perry, Candy Crowley, and Soledad O’Brien. (And I miss the now-sidelined-by-his-own-hand Fareed Zakaria, particularly since US news programs lack a global perspective.) I watch MSNBC, CNN and Fox, and never fail to learn something from them — though, not always what they’ve intended.
All punditry is theatre, on some level. But when it works — and I mean, works as news, not just as a vehicle to deliver partisan talking points — we can tease out nuances of the different challenges this enormous and diverse nation faces. The fact that the news media is based on the coasts ends up doing a great disservice to political media. Having traveled to Arizona to meet with a Tea Party group; gone out with the Border Patrol in Texas; and visited small farming towns in Iowa and Wisconsin, I see how differently Americans live life from other Americans. It is damned near impossible to wrap your arms around what America really is, especially from a perch in New York or the Beltway. But for fiscal and show-business reasons (punditry is way cheaper than reporting), we often get remote video or two-ways spoken-over by people in New York and DC. Ideally, punditry would be the spice on the meal, not the meal itself. It’s the inversion of the role of punditry in the news industry that has degraded the art of political dialogue itself. Without a solid base in reporting, particularly regional reporting, it’s hard to expect shows of talking heads to really illuminate the issues we face.
And frankly, what issues don’t we face these days? We’re facing a government debt cliff, an entitlements cliff, a personal debt cliff, an education cliff, a climate cliff, and if not an employment cliff, well then, a slippery slope. All of these issues require long-range thinking which is often antithetical to short-range partisan needs. While Mitt Romney more than overstates his case that his team is all about “preserving” Medicare and Social Security, it is true that the Obama camp will do better by riling up retirees than discussing the need to restructure entitlements. By “restructure” I do not mean privatize. Read this summary of “Saving Social Security: A Balanced Approach,” by Peter A. Diamond and Peter R. Orszag. Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, has espoused a controversial plan to convert Medicare into subsidies that go to private insurers. (Worth reading: this Bloomberg Businessweek article on how Ryan claimed his Medicare plan was bipartisan when it is nothing of the sort.) I’ll talk more in my next piece about the issues we face, but suffice it to say in an election year going for the win — in the case of team Obama, playing to the fears of seniors — trumps having a more detailed discussion about how to revamp Medicare without eviscerating it.
As for me, I’ve found my personal appetite for doing television punditry has waned considerably. For the first time since 1996, I won’t be attending the conventions, and aside from missing some great parties, I’ll be just as happy watching the speeches on TV and commenting online and on radio. I don’t shill for either political party (though I certainly have my views on both), and that makes me a less-than-ideal pundit during the heat of the campaign. For me, as for media, this is a time of evolution. I personally am struggling to figure out how to contribute to political dialogues in a way that is expansive rather than reductive; critical but not blindly partisan; skeptical rather than cynical; and forward-looking rather than navel-gazing. I haven’t given up on politics, not at all. I’m just trying to reinvent how I can contribute to the conversation, at a time when our country needs true dialogue more than ever.