“We as a nation are television watchers. Not only do we learn about politics by watching television, but we are television watchers; who we are as humans is in part defined by the attention that we pay to the television.”
President Obama has had a long week. He has had to wrangle with the Senate’s leaders over the healthcare legislation they are cobbling together, answer tough questions about the strategy his administration is using in Afghanistan, and jet off to Copenhagen to corner world leaders to extract some sort of climate change commitment from the world’s leading nations.
After watching the Sunday morning political talk shows today, I took a spin around the internet, and added the knowledge gleaned from both of these activities to the real-world commentary of actual citizens I’ve heard over the last couple of days.
It led me to conclude that if a person is prone to base all of his or her political opinions on the information they get from television, then they are usually forming their outlook with data that is often colored by the broadcast medium itself. The need for television networks to inject their own sense of drama into the fractious debates surrounding healthcare, war and global warming can often create a political narrative that is more melodramatic than the actual events.
Most of the kinds of things that make for great TV moments — asking the president if he thinks Afghanistan will be another Vietnam, making references to unofficial communications between the White House and the Senate Majority leadership, or describing President Obama “bursting into a meeting” during the Copenhagen emissions conclave — don’t really convey enough useful information for the average citizen to make well-informed decisions.
Benjamin Page, in studying the techniques of news organizations, finds that they solicit, select, and shape quotations; choose which facts to report; frame the meaning of news stories; and use overly evaluative words and statements.
These are methods which can take a president who has racked up a record number of frequent flier miles this week while working the phone harder than a rookie stockbroker, and boil all his efforts and hard work down to a soundbite –“Enron-like accounting is behind healthcare bill” – that his Republican opponents put forth.