Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Arrogance of the Media's Emphasis on "Character Issues"

If you run a search on Google and use the words "Al Gore" and sighing, you will find that there are approximately 21,500 entries returned by Google's search engine. If, however, you run the terms "George W. Bush" and "lack of intellectual curiosity" you will get a return of 719 entries. This example illustrates the problem with the emphasis on so-called "character issues" by the media.

The range of the media's concern with "character issues" is very limited. Did the candidate ever cheat on his or her spouse, did he lie to someone about something important, is he or she hypocritical, did the candidate ever do a favor for a contributor, are about all the questions asked by the media regarding "character." Almost none of them, however, relate to the policies that such a candidate will adopt if elected, and there is no indication that the public really cares about the answers to those questions.

The illustration given above shows the problem with the media's approach. Did it matter at all whether Al Gore was condescending to George W. Bush during their debates? Does it really matter at all if Al Gore is condescending to his political opponents and thinks that a lot of them are idiots? Would such character traits impact on the policies he would have pursued if elected? The answer is "No, they wouldn't."

Contrast that with George W. Bush's lack of intellectual curiosity. Almost every mistake made by this administration can be traced to the fact that George W. Bush never questions the adoption of policies that seem consistent with the beliefs he held before becoming President. As he once famously said, "I know what I believe and I believe that what I believe is right." Nowhere in that statement is any appreciation for the concept that actual facts may challenge a person's beliefs. Yet, almost no member of the media reported about Bush's lack of intellectual curiosity prior to him becoming President in 2000.

One reason is that it is a hard concept to illustrate by example. People close to Bush aren't going to talk about his lack of intellectual curiosity and such a character trait isn't apparent from a distance. Intellectual curiosity shows up in the books a person reads, or in conversations, or in who a person has discussions with and the topics discussed. It is shown over time and is not easily verifiable.

Contrast that with sighing during a debate. There you have proof since the sighing was done during a televised debate. It is a singular event in time. It is easily understood by the public. In short it is ready made for media analysis. The same is true about cheating on a spouse, once one of the people involved is willing to talk about it, or about doing a favor for a contributor, once the favor is discovered.

During the 2008 Presidential campaign millions of words will be written and/or spoken by the media about so-called "character issues", and almost none of them will have any relation to policies that the winning candidate will adopt once elected.

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