Conservative punditry and political journalism: The things we think but do not say

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Two things I pay close attention to — political journalism and conservatism — are experiencing a crisis of conscience. In both cases, bad incentives and a lack of leadership are to blame. There doesn’t seem to be much hope on the horizon.

First, let’s consider the current state of the conservative movement — which, as far as I can tell, largely consists of people attempting to outdo each other with controversial comments — in order to garner them the most attention, ratings, and book sales.

Ann Coulter, who recently lamented the “con men” and “charlatans” in the GOP, is, perhaps, a good place to start (if only because she is among the most famous and controversial conservative commentators). Here’s how it works: Coulter says something controversial, and we pay attention to her. She wins. We (the media outlets) win.

But who loses? In many cases, conservatives collectively lose.

She is, in a word, a peacock.

Here’s what I mean. As Michael Shermer, in reviewing Robert H. Frank’s “The Darwin Economy,” notes, “The ornate and ostentatious tail of the peacock troubled [Charles] Darwin.” This was because,

what is good for the individual peacock in attracting peahens by building a flamboyant tail is bad for the species in making everyone a greater target for predation; as well, building ever fancier tails is a waste of resources. If the peacocks could form a governing organization to establish and enforce rules to delimit tail design the species would be better off.

This, of course, does not mean we should resent the peacocks who are, after all, making a completely rational decision every time they show off their feathers.

(Coulter is merely one example of numerous conservative media creations who have an incentive to do or say things that sometimes collectively chip away at the conservative brand — or, at least, change the subject. I’ve met her, and she’s very nice and obviously smart. And as the saying goes, “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” It should also be noted that there is a theory that conservatism benefits from having spokesmen say outrageous things — that they expand the “Overton Window” — making the rest of us appear more moderate, by comparison.)

But part of the reason we continue to see news cycles devoted to something radical one of our conservative leaders uttered is that there are no adults to stop it.

Of course, I would never suggest limiting someone’s free speech — the government shouldn’t censor political comments — especially the stupid ones. What I am suggesting is more shaming and self-policing.

Think of the neighborhood where a kid starts acting up or mouthing off. In the old days, someone — some old codger, usually — would put that kid back in line. Now days, nobody does that — nobody has the guts — or the moral authority — to do it.

And so, the “broken windows” metastasize into something much worse.

To be sure, political commentary has always had a little P.T. Barnum mixed in. Salesmanship is part of the job. This is, as they say, “Hollywood for ugly people.” But things have gotten worse, and conservatism, it seems to me, hasn’t been helped by the trend.

Technology has probably helped create a situation where it is harder for anyone to be the leader — even unofficially. When National Review was essentially the only conservative magazine — the place everyone wanted to be — well then Bill Buckley had the political juice to essentially write people out of the conservative movement. That’s no longer the case. (Didn’t National Review fire Ann Coulter?)

Today, everyone has a printing press. Everyone has a megaphone. In many ways, this is good. But like everything else, there is a downside.

Still, one must conclude that the dearth of leaders willing to stand athwart the blowhards, yelling “stop!” — has contributed to the mess. Not everyone has the credibility to attempt to put smart and famous people in their place. But surely someone does (or did.)

I’m currently obsessed with the now-defunct TV show, “Friday Night Lights.’ In the series, the fictional Coach Eric Taylor loves his team, but demands high standards from them. Despite the constant stream of drama and ethical dilemmas he must overcome, if one of his players gets out of line, the coach lets them know it. Conservatism has no such leader today.

This brings us to political journalism, which dovetails the problems with conservative punditry. (In both cases, the individual incentives seem to be pushing toward negative consequences for the whole.)

There are issues to be addressed such as how sensational “tabloid” stories all too often get more hits, but while the vapidity of political journalism is a worthy issue, so too is the ratcheting up of constant, granular, coverage of the previously mundane.

Again, I’ll refer to Shermer’s review of Frank for a rather random example, yet appropriate illustration, as to why this matters:

Ever increasing height in the heels of women’s shoes is another example of a fashion arms race in which everyone would be better off in flats. Once a few start to inch up their heels, the fashion trend takes off forcing those who would not otherwise do so engage in an Achilles-tightening arms race.

The trend in political journalism isn’t higher heels, it is in micro-coverage. If Rick Santorum sneezes, it becomes a video, which is then Tweeted out. Minor gaffes, once completely ignored, now drive media coverage, confirming “narratives” or preconceived notions we have about the candidates.

Again, this was the natural next step after the invention of the 24-hour news cycle. On the positive, it means more free speech. On the negative, it probably means nobody will ever respect a president, in the same way, again.

While this technology empowers us all to be more involved in democracy, the deluge of trivial coverage — the Politico-ization (or BuzzFeed-ization) of political journalism — has led to more information — but is that always a good thing?

Political coverage is coming dangerously close to celebrity gossip — or sports coverage. Of course, the only problem with that is that it trivializes the process. And just like high heels, if one media outlet begins covering politics in a more sensational way, a nuclear race to the bottom ensues. We all must do this.

Here’s a classic example. The other day, there was tremendous buzz about a picture of Rick Santorum sunbathing. I’m sure it got a lot of hits, but it was completely irrelevant, and utterly vapid. I’m sure we probably ran it — we sort of had to. But can you imagine back in the old days if a reporter had come to a grizzled, old newspaper editor with the idea of publishing that photo? The old fella might have said, “Son, we’re not going to run that because it’s not news. We’re not going to run that as long as I’m here. I don’t care if other newspapers do — we’re not. Now get the hell out of my office!”

Today, that old guy is dead. Or retired — probably pushed out by some upstart.

I realize that by writing this, I’ve become like that old man — yelling at the kids to get off his grass. I’m a free marketer — so please know I’m not advocating government get involved. What I am saying is that those of us in the midst of this should be cognizant of what is going on. We should try our best to create incentives that benefit our cause and our industry. And, if nothing else, this is a call for some self-policing, some good old fashioned shaming, and yes, some damned leadership.

Matt K. Lewis