Thursday, April 23, 2015

Political Reporting as Theatre Criticism

Derek Thompson singles out Maureen Dowd, but he might also have been thinking of Frank Rich.

After all, who better to epitomize a journalist who writes about politics as though it were theatre? A theatre critic by trade-- previously having reviewed shows for the New York Times-- Rich now offers commentary on the political scene from his perch at New York Magazine.

We know how severely Maureen Dowd has chastised Hillary Clinton, but here is Rich, a fervent liberal Democrat, on Hillary’s handling of her email server problem:

That it took Clinton as long as it did to respond to the rising chorus of these questions, and that she did so as defensively and unconvincingly as she did, is yet more evidence that she’s not ready for the brutality of a presidential campaign. This hastily called, abruptly truncated press conference was reminiscent of the mistakes she made last year in her ill-fated book tour. She didn’t schedule yesterday’s appearance until after the most senior of Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein, essentially demanded that she speak up.

Some of what Clinton said didn’t pass the smell test. It reminded me of an episode in the first season of Veep where the vice-president announces she will release all her internal office correspondence to quell a controversy and then instructs her staff to make sure it’s “Modified Full Disclosure Lite.” That’s what we got here. Why, for instance, would Clinton say that she “didn’t see any reason to keep” her personal emails? Those are precisely the emails that every American keeps. 

If she doesn’t become more forthright and less defensive when she’s under fire, this is going to be a very long campaign for her. Though we keep being told that she and those around her are determined not to repeat the mistakes of 2008, so far there’s no evidence of that. And the much tougher questions — starting with those about the donors to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation — are yet to come.

Rich is not going to convert to Republicanism, but his analysis rings true. Having been written six weeks ago it feels prescient.

While Thompson is correct to say that journalists indulge in too much theatre criticism and not enough policy analysis, one must also note that theatre criticism attracts and holds the attention of far more readers than does policy analysis.

Beyond the fact that a newspaper or magazine that does not attract readers will not long survive, most citizens prefer entertainment to rational debate. In many cases it’s the only way they can understand what is going on.

Before we blame the writers, we should look at the audience and the marketplace.

Then again, many journalists who are writing about political theatre do not know enough to perform policy analysis.

Be that as it may, Thompson takes Maureen Dowd to task in these paragraphs:

… Maureen Dowd criticized Clinton for not adequately performing the following parts: "Macho Man," "Humble Granny," "Tumblr Chick," and a "clawing robot who has coveted the role as leader of the free world for decades." This is the same writer who recently blasted President Obama for not demonstrating sufficient joy in the Oval Office and who, 15 years ago, wrote that Democratic presidential candidate "Al Gore is so feminized ... he's practically lactating."

This guide to presidential etiquette is, at best, punctilious, and, at worst, nonsensical: Disliking the presidency is a sin, and so is coveting it. A nerd being himself is effeminate, trying to appeal to your audience is craven, but changing your message in reaction to critics who call you out for cravenness? Well, that's downright condemnable. These sort of writers have painted a behavioral strike zone where a candidate can miss high by being too aware that politics is performance art, or miss low by being too cool to play the part.

One accepts Thompson’s point, but the spectacle of a leading New York Times columnist trash-talking Hillary Clinton and Al Gore does have redeeming social value.

To allow Thompson his say, he defines the problem thusly:

A great deal of political writing these days is indistinguishable from theater criticism: Its chief concerns are storyline, costumes, and the quality of public performances.

True enough, and yet the optics, as they now call it, do matter. Until the American people decide to choose presidents on the basis of competence and positive achievement, optics are the default position.

Thompson intimates, but does not quite say it, that politicians who have not accomplished very much tend to promote themselves by looking presidential. One can easily summon up the name of a current president who is all show and no substance.

In a culture that is based on celebrity, how you look has come to take the place of what you have achieved.

It might be that too  many people cannot tell the difference between confidence that comes from achievement and simulated confidence that has been mastered by politicians who have figured out how to act the part.

According to Thompson, they use what is called method acting:

In the early twentieth century, the famous acting coach Constantin Stanislavski devised a theater method that called for "psycho-physical unity." The central conceit is that when actors get a part, they ought to plumb their emotional memories and their arsenal of physical gestures to fully render the psychological life of the prescribed character….

In Stanislavski's method, verisimilitude is inside-out. What the audience sees as authenticity comes from the performer's authentic connection to her inner life. The opposite can also be true: If the audience doesn't see it, the actor must not feel it.

One believes, as one has occasionally said, that method acting, the inside/out expression of deep feeling has been a ruinous influence on the American theatre and the American movie business.

In the end, it does not matter what the actor is feeling. What matters is how it looks to the audience. Being angry or jealous is not the same thing as looking as though one is angry or jealous in order to sustain the telling of a story. Emotional authenticity is a ruse.

I assume that Thompson is getting at the fact that many political journalists do not know the difference between a candidate who presents himself as having achieved something and a candidate who can make himself look confident. To use an example that by now is a cliché: David Brooks believed in the future of Barack Obama because of the crease of his trousers.

In Thompson’s words:

This sort of Stanislavski critique is weirdly common among journalists who assume that when a candidate has trouble connecting with audiences, it is not a sign that they are, say, uncomfortably shy or naturally reserved. It is, rather, a deeper failure on the part of the candidate's character—a failure to find psycho-physical unity with the part we've all decided the candidate should play before the footlights of a national campaign.

Since the American press, to a person, decided that neither competence nor achievement mattered in the case of our current president, they systematically failed to fulfill one of the basic functions of journalism: to inform the public.

Not just about policy matters, but about resume. What significant achievements does the candidate bring to his campaign? What makes him competent to do the job of president?

While it is true enough that the marketplace prefers theatre criticism, journalists are not innocent victims.

They have, in the past gone far beyond mere theatre criticism by purveying biased coverage of candidates. They seem more interested in telling people who to vote for than in reporting on campaigns.

And they are suffering the after-shocks of an educational system that prefers to tell people what to think rather than to teach them how to think.


Anonymous said...

We've been So Lucky. During every crisis since our Founding (and during it) we've had leaders who could pull us thru.

We've also had a citizenry that came together and did their patriotic best.

I wonder if either condition exists now. I don't know. -- Rich Lara

Ares Olympus said...

re: They have, in the past gone far beyond mere theatre criticism by purveying biased coverage of candidates. They seem more interested in telling people who to vote for than in reporting on campaigns.

It sounds like Carl Bernstein (Watergate reporter) would agree about much of this failure of Journalism. He spoke last week in Minnesota, with article below and audio for anyone interested.

Is it the responsibility of a reporter to be provocative (to get people to read further), or give unbiased contradictory facts from multiple sources without analysis or opinion?

Bernstein's answer is “The best obtainable version of the truth.” but there are yet 2-issues - how to identify such best truth, and how to communicate it without leading people into a nonthinking slumber.

54 minute audio:

Dennis said...


You may be right. The education system has become a glorified day care center and academe is nothing more that an adult, I use the term adult loosely here, day care center generally operated by people who never succeeded in growing up.
Given the above is it any wonder that those who graduated, again advisedly, fail to meet the requirements to solve problems and take responsibility for their actions and lives.
How can one expect adult actions out of people who need "trigger warning" and "safe places" when someone may use words that might offend them in some way or manner?

Dennis said...

My advise to ISIS, et al is not to use guns and bombs, but to use words that are guaranteed to have a significant number of people running to "safe places" to cower. That way only a few people will be left to fight back. The nation's military and civilian leadership is doing its best to demoralize them.
When there are no more people who consider themselves American then there will be no more America.