The “Down with Democrats” Mood and Our Presentist Media

January 20, 2010
By | 5 Comments

I have no interest in trying to explain the Democratic defeat yesterday in Massachusetts. The handwringing and recriminations occurring at this moment in Washington and Massachusetts will supply enough of that. But the one-year anniversary of Obama’s inauguration and yesterday’s Democratic defeat does perhaps offer the opportunity to look back across the last year and wonder how we moved so quickly from giddiness to gloom when considering the polity’s mood.

Obviously the terrible shape of the economy is on almost everyone’s mind. And it should come as no surprise that anger about our current condition would find its way to the ballot box. The political right has exploited that anger because, well, it makes for good politics (they have little else to sell) and attacking Obama also makes for profitable media. The political left, on the other hand, calls this “Obama’s inheritance”—that these are conditions that Obama did not create but inherited from eight years of Republican corruption, malfeasance, and incompetence (as the most recent conversation between Bill Moyers and Thomas Frank demonstrates).

The left, of course, has a point. The polity’s mood is directly related to the fact that Americans are notoriously ahistorical, not to mention ill-informed and contemptuous of politics. Given current conditions, it is simply easy to blame Obama and the Democrats for not turning things around more quickly—never mind that guy who was in charge 365 days ago.

What interests me more is what we see in the middle. What has grabbed my attention is how presentist our media is in their reporting. By presentist I mean the way in which news media are generally focused on explaining the now with little regard to what happened last month or last year (although I do enjoy the double entendre of the dictionary definition of presentist–“a person who maintains that the prophecies in the Apocalypse are now being fulfilled”). Even NPR is breathless in its “reporting” on how the public feels right this minute and connecting those feelings to Obama, with little attempt to frame its stories in the broader context of the slow processes of governance and economic change.

Political scientists say that the modern presidency is dominated by the “continuous campaign,” whereby campaigning for public office continues every day that one is in office. They bemoan the fact that the dynamics of campaigning destroys one’s ability to engage in the politics of governance. What political scientists often fail to recognize is the continuous campaign’s connection to our entertainment culture, and celebrity politics in particular.

Celebrity politics isn’t just about the selling of politicians such as Obama and Palin on the campaign trail (and the public’s affective relationship therewith). It is also the way in which news media treat governance in the same fashion that they treat celebrity culture. Who is up or down on any given day, as determined by the gods of popularity? Is the celebrity being worshiped or vilified by the public right now? News media, like celebrity itself, must sell its meaningfulness or relevance to the public every day, and aligning with popular sentiment becomes the basis for how reporting gets done. Looking backwards is only helpful in end-of-year specials. And describing the intricacies of how power works simply doesn’t sell like the red carpet spectacles featured in OK! magazine.

If the public is ahistorical and the press is damningly superficial in its role in framing or reporting reality (much less helping the public understand governance), then Obama best return to campaign mode soon, for the road ahead looks to be a particularly bumpy ride.

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5 Responses to “ The “Down with Democrats” Mood and Our Presentist Media ”

  1. Jason Mittell on January 20, 2010 at 3:18 PM

    I agree with your diagnosis, and would add another aspect of the media coverage: treating politics as sport, or so-called horse race coverage. Presentist logic is a key facet of sports media, as the question is less about how a team built to its current state, but what it will do in the next game. The fact that the political-entertainment system is focused on “today & tomorrow” borrows directly from sports metaphors and tonalities, making the stakes of electoral politics about winning/losing, not governance or policy.

    Alas, I don’t see a way out of this cycle, as changing the narrative would require a wholesale shift in the relationship between media, government, and commerce. Sigh…

  2. Matt Sienkiewicz on January 20, 2010 at 3:41 PM

    My experience reading, listening to and watching news makes me want to nod my head. And yet, I do wonder if there’s not something a little bit presentist in this brand of criticism. Is the current climate really fundamentally different? Was there a point where newspapers, radio or whatever else reported things like “idea x really isn’t working so hot right now, but, you know, give it a chance…”

    Maybe there was, I really don’t know. If this is new, is it just because there is more media? Is a change in quantity enough to underpin a claim of qualitative shift? I think in any case the criticism being levied here wouldn’t have shocked an Adorno or Lippmann too terribly.

  3. Jeffrey Jones on January 20, 2010 at 5:18 PM

    Of course the argument is presentist–it’s a blog post in the aftermath of Obama’s anniversary and an electoral defeat for Democrats, not a theorization worthy of a journal article or book. And neither are the ideas of celebrification, continual campaigns, or even Jason’s smart reminder of horse race coverage anything new. But does it describe where we are today, in this moment, when listening to NPR and other media outlets, all of which perhaps do the citizenry (not just the Democratic Party or Obama) a disservice by refusing to help citizens understand that this is like turning around an aircraft carrier, not a tug boat?

    News is, by definition, about today and tomorrow, not yesterday. But given the magnitude of the Great Recession, certainly any student of history would be interested in wondering why this press, in this moment and this time, is seeing this as 1992, not 1932. And that seems significant to me.

    • Jason Mittell on January 20, 2010 at 7:00 PM

      I don’t think news needs to be presentist. Expert commentators are often brought in to offer context, including history, comparisons with other nations, etc. Or should be – the problem is that most experts on the majority of TV news programs are there to handicap the race, talk strategy, parse performance, pontificate poll numbers, etc.

      For me, the reply to Matt’s point is not that today’s news is necessarily so radically different, but the ratio & range of coverage is – we have 3+ 24-hour news channels a day, but they almost never take the time to analyze, reflect, and explore. While much news of yesterday was more or less the same, there were reliable and influential journalists who went beyond the main story of today, something that’s more rare today despite more time to fill.

      • Jonathan Gray on January 20, 2010 at 10:49 PM

        yeah, the ratio is the thing that bugs me too, Jason. If earlier news was crappy, they could at least say, “hey, we get half an hour a day; what can we do?” but when TV news opens up to being round the clock, and when the Internet allows print journalists to add another 1000 words if they want, it’s quite pathetic that at the very least we see no improvement, and by many accounts we see it get worse.

        So many in the press (and I’m not just talking onscreen — producers are often just as much to blame) are (like) lazy C students: ask a smart, intellectually curious student to write a 10 page paper instead of a 5 page one and you’ll get more detail, more analysis, more research, etc., but if you ask the lazy one, you’ll get 5 more pages of BS, making it more insufferable than if you’d just asked for 5 in the first place.