Monday, July 23, 2007

Informed Consent

Informed Consent.

That is how our host and moderator, Ron Suskind, described our method of democracy. The public, informed with appropriate knowledge about the candidates, will consent to the judgment of their leaders to make the decisions that will govern our nation. Ideally, the founders hoped that the decisions to grant this consent would be made with reason. The best candidate, in possession of strong leadership qualities and in tune with our values, will head our government based upon this hope. But as Suskind notes (and as I am also finding out in Drew Westen's The Political Brain), humans often make their decisions based in emotion and anger. Suskind went on to reiterate that the role of the media is to attempt to present information to the public so that they may make a well-informed decision. This is especially true for the political media.

He then told a few stories about how easily things can be misinterpreted when presented en masse. Notably, he recounted the Dean Scream episode of Iowa, 2004. Calling it “an issue of his microphone,” Suskind talked about how that night, after losing Iowa in an upset, Vermont Governor Howard Dean was addressing supporters in a loud, crowded auditorium. The noise level and excitement live in the gym were unmistakable, yet from watching news clips one would never know. Dean was using a new type of microphone intended to cut out ambient background noise. So for those people who were fifteen rows back from the stage, the so-called “Dean Scream” was almost inaudible. But for those people tuned into the FOX News, it sounded like a crazy man screaming out loud to himself. Last I checked, there must have been tens of millions more people watching on television. As Suskind put it, because of a mostly unreported microphone issue, “from then on it was RIP for Dean…A wildly unrepresented nugget, borne of technology essentially crucified him.”

So can the media represent the true goings-on of the march to the nomination? Suskind mentioned that there are “enormous issues we face now in ‘08: al Qaeda, Iraq. Will we follow reason?” He then posed the following question to the panel:

In your role as an intermediary on informed consent, what do you most hope for? What do you most fear?

The panelists' answers all tended to address the need to portray specialized information without being too sensational, especially when it comes to giving excessive amounts of press to youtube flavors of the week. Walter Shapiro in particular brought up an interesting point about the need for journalists to, in essence, tell readers something about the person who is in line to be the next President that has predictive power about how he will behave in office. He then goes on to take some responsibility for being suckered into believing Bush’s “compassionate conservative” motto on the 863rd time he heard it. He also mentioned that he feared that, in the future, the primary “calendar will go Iowa, New Hampshire and then bedlam” followed by nine months of buyer’s remorse before the general election due to the lack of access to the candidates and little time to adjust to information post-New Hampshire.

Tumulty noted the increase in now-style journalism, creating a need for journalists to finish stories under overwhelmingly short deadlines. Instead of chewing on a story for a week and really checking facts, too often the media is forced to slam out a story in one night just to beat everyone else to the scoop. In my brief time here at 3Q, I can vouch for the difficulty of putting out something of high quality versus the strain of wanting to put it out instantly for all the laptop quick-click combatants in the blogosphere who are constantly waiting for some new chunk of news to satisfy their political dopamine requirements. Lucky for me, no one reads my blog. But I still act like they do. Dammit, I always will!

Suskind then discussed the weakened role of the press these days. Weakened as a result of one big, fat, ugly word: Message. He called the use of spin, message and marketing “the dark arts” and told a story relayed to him by fabled political reporter Walter Pincus about how, long ago, corporations didn’t distribute message until after their products were examined. Same went for politicians. Now it is fed to us as the standard before we have a clue what to think. Pincus also told him that, “back in 1974 we didn’t have a slug everyday called POTUS. Most days he didn’t do anything interesting.” This apparently changed with President Reagan (no surprise) who did something every day just to get out message about himself, whether it was to cut a ribbon at an opening or make a brief statement to the press to get his mug on the nightly news.

Suskind went on to say, half seriously, that a “journalist’s goal is to fight message. Their (the campaign staff) goal is to kill them.” He continued with the Bush example, “compassionate conservative. What a line, ingenious. In fact, a lie!” He went on to say that message intends to provoke a question. “The challenge of these people,” Suskind then said as he pointed to the panel, “is to punch through message.”

Question two asked the members to give some rules of the game to punch through message.

The panel all had interesting things to say about this question, and really how could they not? Busting through message is the true joy of reporting. People become journalists, I imagine, because they want to tell people the truth, and nothing is more gratifying about truth than when it doubles as calling people on their bullshit. David Chalian established the importance of really dissecting the message to figure out what it is, and matching it with the facts. Unfortunately, he notes due to the importance of timeliness in today’s media world, “we’ve basically outsourced our research to the campaigns.” David Mark added insightfully that a crucial way to break down message is to repeatedly ask questions about their message. Even if you can’t make them answer questions, he pointed out, you can show that they won’t answer, especially if you are specific. Tumulty and Walker continued on Chalian’s theme that “truth spotting” was key in fighting message, and again expressed worry that such an integral journalistic pillars as fact checking is slowly going the way of the buffalo.

Finally, Suskind presented the scary idea that, “the leadership of this great nation will be determined by a 3am half truth.” This is the implication that a half-asleep, overworked, message conscious politician will ultimately be derailed not by his or her policy stances, but instead by a misconstrued or exaggerated story told to a reporter late in the night on a cross-country campaign flight. Imagine Al Gore and the internet. Suskind then said how a campaign aide once told him that when it comes to negative attacks, “we look for things that are a little bit false, but hard to prove false. These things move, and we can get 3-4 days of making opponent defend himself.” Imagine Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Suskind, whose voice sounds like a calm version of Lewis Black, then stated, “I can say with almost 100% surety that there will be at least one Swift Boat type thing this time around.”

Question three: How do we avoid being manipulated? Avoid the little salacious truths?
What feeds informed consent? Will it be the little things that we bicker about, or the bigger truths? How do we guide to the bigger truths?

In this instance, the panel made a strong shift toward the John Edwards haircut flap. Was it just manipulation by rival campaigns and Republicans to show the guy as a reckless fop? Or is it a harbinger of something more serious. The journalists theorized that even in instances like this, a bigger truth may come out. Mark notes that how candidates manage their campaigns can be a sign of how they will run the oval office, and can give a sense of how careful things are scrutinized. Shapiro reiterated this notion when he said, “in further defense of Edwards on the haircut, what clearly happened was a muchkin paid for it with the wrong credit card. The bigger thing is that the people who scrutinized didn’t catch it and undo it.” Unfortunately, everyone got caught up in Haircutgate for this question, and nothing much was said outside of the discussion that a good Presidential candidate will run a good campaign, and not allow the little things to take over, ironically, their message.

At this point, the audience took over the duty of asking questions from Ron Suskind. This group of mostly older, highly in-tune voters, really only wanted to know about second tier candidates, with the exception of the seersucker man I mentioned earlier, who only wanted to excoriate Dick Cheney. This lack of faith in the media by the truly hardcore mostly made for a defensive stance by the journalists, imploring the audience to believe that they, too care to present the possibility of a 5% poller becoming better known to the electorate en route to victory, but that the frontrunners and such for a reason, and therefore need the spotlight, too. With time running out, and presumably a cocktail hour to attend, the moderator closed off debate with a closing statement that rehashed the themes of the afternoon, and ultimately asked the question: “Can truth triumph?”

I shut off my computer, hoping to save at least twenty minutes of battery in the event of an outlet-free coffee shop, and meandered up to the stage to listen in as a few stragglers asked the journalists more detailed questions about specific candidates, and they told a few more war stories and gave their insider opinion. After a while, I became too confused as I challenged myself to listen to three conversations at once. Why was the Biden supporter talking about Mike Huckabee’s chances? Or was someone telling a Joe Liebermann story from 2004, and if so why did Ron Paul’s name come up? So many stories, so much truth, so little time. Can truth triumph? I don’t know, but I think the best person to ask is a guy who lives somewhere above your legs and below your shoulders. He’s called your gut.

The quasi-transcript that is my notes from the event can be seen in the post below.


netto said...

BTB, thanks for the report. Sounds like a solid event and a pox on Dartmouth's residence halls if there wasn't robust student support.

A couple things stood out to me.

1. Voters voting based on anger or fear. I think this is evidently true and not shocking. It is probably an evolutionary mechanism and therefore would be difficult to overcome. Most people associate this sort of campaigning with the Repubs when in fact, it cuts both ways. Repubs scare people by invoking Islamofacism or the demise of families, while the Dems scare people with having the Constitution destroyed. I suppose it goes to the panel's larger point - what is the truthful thing we are scared or angry about? Perhaps all government is is a mechanism to resolve our fears (weak borders, unsafe highways, vigilanteism, tainted food, etc).

2. The idea of buyers remorse. We have laws prohibiting campaigning too close to an election, right? I forget. Imagine if no commercials were allowed a week prior to the election - allowing people to marinate on their choice a bit.

3. Truth-finding/ leaking oppo info. This is pretty timely, especially for those in the NYC sphere of influence where super atty general-turned-gov Eliot Spitzer has been called out for trying to drum up bad press against a rival by using ill-gotten information. Although I am a Spitzer fan, I am heartened by a success of our nation's checks and balances.

netto said...

also, with a conference titled "informed consent," a pun on one of chomsky's better known works, i would have thought there would be more about the role of corporations controlling what's on tv.

BTB said...

You know, there actually was a bit about that, but I did a bad job of taking notes. I think it came at a point when I was really enthralled with something that had been recently said, and my brain was doing a little hamster wheel action. My bad.