One constituency that will benefit from the Democratic takeover of Congress is journalists. At least that’s what National Journal columnist William Powers says. It’s not that Dems appeal to journalists’ own sympathies exactly, but that they’re prone to infighting and hijinks, both of which make for good news copy. And, he tells Brooke, journalists will go to great lengths to prove that they’re not lapdogs of the left.
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Album: She Hangs Brightly
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BROOKE GARFIELD: The media love to create narratives about politics and politicians, but since turnabout is fair play, sometimes politicians and pundits craft narratives about the media, the most common being that the media are biased towards the Democrats.
The earliest post election stories did express a certain optimism, as in a USA Today headline stating, quote, "Democrats Offer to Help Steer New Course in Iraq." But the tide quickly began to turn, starting with the coverage of Speaker Elect Nancy Pelosi's failed attempt to install ally John Murtha as majority leader.
National Journal columnist William Powers would say that the Pelosi storyline is an early example of one of several themes that will shape the coverage of the new Democratic Congress. He calls it in fighting. Another theme Powers says we should expect the media to play upon is Democrats, quote, "running wild." WILLIAM POWERS: You know, I think that Democrats thrive in more chaotic environments, and there's a kind of creative chaos that leads to some of their achievements. And I think there's also a destructive chaos where they tend to undermine themselves. And so, I was pointing out that despite all the headlines we were seeing about all these wonderful things that are about to happen under the Democratic Congress, I think it's going to be a bit yeastier, and for journalists, frankly, a little bit more fun than that first week of headlines would suggest. BROOKE GARFIELD: And the "running wild" storyline, the "in fighting" storyline relates to yet another storyline, what you call "duck soup." These are the Keystone Kop style pratfalls, the Dean scream, Kerry's lame joke, that sort of thing.
WILLIAM POWERS: The point I was trying to make about the Democrats versus the Republicans is that, in my opinion, there is something about the Democrats that is a little bit more Marx Brothers. I mean, obviously the Republicans have these incidents, too. Cheney with the gun -- I mean, my goodness, you know, that was a Jon Stewart gift from heaven BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. WILLIAM POWERS: for weeks. But when it happens to the Democrats, there is something about it where it has a little bit more of an oomph, or it seems to hang around longer and seems to speak to people's funny bone more effectively. I'm not sure why. I think it's related to another point I made in the column, which is the Democratic sort of identity crisis that they constantly seem to be in, this sort of "who am I" theme of the Democrats. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You date that storyline back to Hamlet, although I think it probably goes back to Oedipus. WILLIAM POWERS: [LAUGHS] Yes. Are they liberals? Are they populists? Are they progressives? Just this whole confusion they have about labels. Beyond calling themselves Democrats, they seem kind of shaky on what they are, whereas Republicans, most of them, seem to be very comfortable calling themselves conservatives.
And I think people who have an identity crisis, when they trip, are funnier BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] WILLIAM POWERS: than people who are not having an identity crisis. You know, and the two parties have different weaknesses. I mean, it's not as if the Republicans don't have their own Achilles heels and so forth. But since the Democrats were the new guys in town and were all over the front pages of the papers and the websites, I wanted to remind people we're back to these motifs, and it's going to be interesting and fun. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Interesting, perhaps. Fun, occasionally. But you fall back into a comfortable storyline, and you really fail to report the specificity of things. Nancy Pelosi's, quote, "inability to count votes" seems to be falling into the pratfall category, for instance, and I think it's probably a lot more complicated than that. WILLIAM POWERS: Yeah. No, I mean, that is the real hazard of these kinds of motifs, where they become so familiar for people who are covering events on short deadline, that they fall into them. And I am not for that at all.
And when I said "fun" a minute ago, what I meant by "fun" was just the kind of tableau of politics, the messiness. You know, the humanity of it, I think, is one of the best things about it, and it's something that we don't want to lose in an age when so much political coverage comes from consultants and demographers and these kind of gray sources who are talking basically about data and numbers.
And I think we tend to forget that these two parties are cultures, and they're made up of human beings. And the strengths and the weaknesses of those human beings, I think, should be a huge part of the coverage, because it's the most interesting stuff, ultimately.
You know, I got a lot of critical emails on this column, saying, how could you possibly enjoy the idea that the Democrats are going to be covered aggressively by journalists when we've just had all these years of Republican screw ups and bad policy and so forth and so on.
But, you know, I really think both parties should be viewed with the gimlet eye by journalists. I think skepticism about people in power is one of the best things about journalists. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you think there was a sufficient amount of skepticism about the Republican Congress? WILLIAM POWERS: I think there was. You know, I think journalists are more likely to be aggressive about Democratic Congresses than they are about Republican ones -- what I call "tough love" -- because there is this drumbeat of criticism about journalists for being left leaning. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right? WILLIAM POWERS: And because of that theme, which is now several decades old, about media bias, I think when journalists see an opportunity to be aggressive about Democrats, they tend to leap on it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you call it "tough love." We call it "bending over backwards" over here; at least, that's what we call it on the air. WILLIAM POWERS: [LAUGHS] I call it tough love because, let's face it, all the studies show that journalists do tend to vote Democratic in huge numbers, so there is a sympathy there, a political sympathy. But I don't think it's necessarily reflected in the coverage, and I think we're going to see that in the coverage of this Congress. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I've noticed another narrative emerging right now into full bloom. I wonder if you have. A Monday Associated Press piece described division in the Republican ranks. WILLIAM POWERS: Yes. It's the brand new motif. It's wonderful, because it's unexpected. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] WILLIAM POWERS: You haven't seen that in a very long time, obviously. It feels like a ship that hasn't come on the horizon for decades. And I hope it continues in that it's a great story. I love a great story, and I think that one's very rich. And that particular one that you mentioned had great evidence. And so here's to it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: William Powers is a fellow at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and a columnist at National Journal. Thanks a lot. WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you. Bye bye.