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Political Journalism: Rarely Scratching the Surface of Life

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“But the columns that stick with us most of all rarely touch on the polls or the name-calling. Instead, they might be retired Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Bill Lyon’s ‘viewpoints’ columns, which chronicle the dissolution of his memory as he suffers from Alzheimer’s.”

I think I know now what Charles Krauthammer meant in the introduction to his book. His anthology Things That Matter was published in 2013 and would rise to the top of The New York Times Non-Fiction Best Sellers List shortly thereafter. It was a retrospective, a collection of the author’s favorite columns he’d written over his decades-long career as a political commentator.

But, in the introduction, he says something rather unexpected, given the profession for which he is known: making clear his opinions on politics, elections, Washington. He writes that he had originally planned to feature only his columns, which did not touch on politics—only those about his late brother, or a favorite professor from Harvard Medical School, or being a fan of the (then) habitually disappointing Washington Nationals.

But he changed his mind: “…in the end I couldn’t. For a simple reason, the same reason I left psychiatry for journalism. While science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture, chess, space, sports, number theory and all things hard and beautiful promise purity, elegance and sometimes even transcendence, they are fundamentally subordinate. In the end, they must bow to the sovereignty of politics.” Fair point, but one wonders if he might have been onto something with his initial idea.

“Are these exchanges, so removed from what seems to really matter or drive most of our lives, really worthy of such attention on the radio, in our opinion pages, and in our collective awareness?”

The vast majority of media coverage focuses on federal government bickering and macro policy. Does it matter to the lives of most Americans whether Senator Jeff Flake called President Trump this name or that name or whether the President replied by saying that the Arizona politician’s career was “toast”? Did the President insult James Comey, and then did the former FBI Director reciprocate such choice words in full?

Are these exchanges, so removed from what seems to really matter or drive most of our lives, really worthy of such attention on the radio, in our opinion pages, and in our collective awareness?

Perhaps we’d be better served to give greater space to the sorts of columns that seem to shine more than the “he said, she said” commentary about Capitol Hill: the columns that last longer than one fast-paced, hot summer news cycle.

One editor famously acknowledged a frequent charge levied against the media industry: a preference for bad news over good, a point seconded by recent findings in psychology as well. This particular study, carried out at McGill University, suggests that despite the blame directed at news organizations for running the negativity, it is actually what the readers want. The Guardian as of late, however, is objecting to this feedback loop and pioneering a project to feature more and more uplifting stories. Readers, apparently, have been taking notice.

But the issue goes deeper than just the common talking point and the bemoaning of the negative. Perhaps our attention could just as well be directed at the reality that coverage today features a preference for national stories (many of which are horse-race driven), “the episodic,” the transient, and, often, the irrelevant.

“The columns that stick with us rarely touch on the polls or the name-calling.”

We might even be better served to speak more about the regulations passed by government agencies or debates happening in state houses and governors’ mansions. Even if these issues are, at times, fleeting themselves, they, at least, have more to say about daily life than the incessant coverage of the Washington bickering, who breached decorum on Capitol Hill, or how nasty the insults got at the Al Smith dinner this time around.

But the columns that stick with us most of all rarely touch on the polls or the name-calling. Instead, they might be retired Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Bill Lyon’s “viewpoints” columns, which chronicle the dissolution of his memory as he suffers from Alzheimer’s. His prose is touching, an on-the-ground report from his own battle with the disease, more relatable to most readers than battlefront coverage from the Middle East. One retrospective on his marriage he wrote just days after the death of his wife of five decades would be, well-deservedly, shared thousands of times.

Mary Schmich won her 2012 Pulitzer for Commentary for, as the selection committee put it: “her wide range of down-to-earth columns that reflect the character and capture the culture of her famed city.” There was her description of the day-to-day difficulties faced by a sister with a disability. Another concerned a local Vietnam veteran tracking down his old buddies from the war. Or there was her recent column reflecting on the silver lining in being bedridden by the flu.

Why are these pieces so capturing? Part of it might be the writing, but, in fairness, maybe it’s just as much the fact that they come about so infrequently and serve as such a welcome break from the grind. One old German writer was onto something when he suggested that every day we ought to read a good piece of writing or look at a pretty scene so as to ensure the humdrum of work and life not eclipse our sense of what’s most worthwhile. This is not, of course, to suggest that our newspapers become literary magazines. But maybe we can strike a balance.

“The journalism that rules our airwaves sidesteps the relevant and the close-to-home in favor of the distant: the sensational instead of the relatable.”

George Orwell had suggested that just about all writing is political writing—but, perhaps for once, he’s not as spot-on as usual. Or even if he is right, maybe it’d be better if he weren’t. Politics, at least how the press has come to interpret it, seems far removed from what life of consists of; it’s more than tax rates and budgets, facts and figures, closing bells: the so-called hot-button issues, neatly stacked on a candidate’s website. They seem to have so little to do with what our lives truly consist of: buses running late, wedding cakes, falling asleep with the TV on—a bad day, grit, or loyalty.

The journalism that rules our airwaves sidesteps the relevant and the close-to-home in favor of the distant: the sensational instead of the relatable. But most of all, these pieces don’t speak to our aspirations, to the essence of things. After all, most of the truly valuable moments in our lives have little to do with politics: the moments we remember and look back to—what Dr. Krauthammer called “things that matter,” the things they write poems and make movies about.

Erich Prince is a Co-founder at Merion West.

Erich J. Prince is a Co-founder and contributor at Merion West. Erich has written for a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, and the Orlando Sentinel. His writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale University, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress. Contact Erich at erich@merionwest.com.