For just a brief moment before Politico.com co-founder John Harris spoke last Friday at his alma mater, Carleton College, he might have allowed himself to think that finally – finally! – he would safely be able to relax in the warm embrace of a completely friendly and appreciative crowd.
After co-founding the gossipy, sensation-loving, successful Washington news web site Politico.com three years ago, Harris has taken plenty of hard public whacks from media critics for having added yet another rumor-mongering, ethically-dodgy “news” outlet to the global media.
A former political reporter for the Washington Post, Harris often fights back when criticized this way by insisting that he in fact despises what he calls “the freak show” of modern American politics and the media. In speeches and a book he calls the freak show “a type of politics that rewards attack, rhetorical bombast, the most flamboyant personalities and the most incendiary arguments.”
Although the dominant mode of public discourse today, “the freak show in an earlier era would have been relegated to the far margins,” Harris said in his Carleton talk.
In that talk, he described in detail how the freak show – fueled by a media hungry for gaudy invective and gossipy tidbits — is degrading American society: “Its incentives are toward ideological certitude and inflexibility and away from problem-solving and compromise; toward an obsession with personalities and the personal foibles of politicians, and away from the substantive work and ideas; and toward rudeness and incivility and away from respect.”
“I’m opposed to the freak show,” Harris concluded. “It offends my values.”
Alas, the skeptical Carleton audience was having none of it.
Before coming to the talk, they perhaps had seen the progressive Media Matters web site call out Politico for frequently hyping rumors planted by political operatives; or how other critics had disparaged the site’s addiction to blind quotes and attributions; or read the Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald multi-article tutorial on how Politico perversely illustrates the most hallowed and fundamental journalistic principles by vividly violating every one of them.
“Aren’t you guilty of what you yourself are speaking out against?” one Carleton student asked in the Q&A, noting Politico’s role in spreading and often originating sensational and trivial “news” items around the clock.
In the three years since its founding, some of Politico’s biggest scoops have included breaking the news of John Edwards $400 haircut; of Sarah Palin’s $150,000 wardrobe budget; and of John McCain’s not recalling how many homes he owned.
Another Carleton student in the Q&A challenged Harris to defend Politico’s obsession with “process stories,” i.e. stories that focus on political gamesmanship and maneuvering as opposed to describing the pros and cons of actual policies.
“Can you defend process stories to me? I’m just a little skeptical,” the student asked.
Harris used self-deprecating humor, straightforward answers, and at one point a flat-out confession of Politico’s sins to deflect the audience’s skepticism.
“I have a friend who worked in the Clinton White House who says ‘I can see why you didn’t call it Substanceco.com,'” he cracked ruefully at one point.
He defended Politico’s obsession with “horse-race” or “process” stories by arguing that process and personality both have a great impact on how policy is formed and ultimately passes, and thus all are intertwined.
He distanced Politico stories from the blogosphere by noting that all Politico stories are edited before they are published and that a layer of accountability therefore exists at his web site, unlike on most solo-written blogs.
And yet, Harris also frankly acknowledged that if process and policy are interwoven, so are the freak show and Politico.com.
“The same trends that helped facilitate the freak show are also the trends that helped facilitate Politico. Which leads to an awkward question. Might my publication be a part of the freak show?”
Is it just me, or do the paragraphs above sound a lot like a 12-step meeting? In those quotations and exchanges I hear vivid echoes of classic addict lines:
- “Everyone else is drinking so I do too. How can I stop?
- “I think I’m addicted but I’m not sure. What do you think?”
- “Am I addicted? Yes, I am. No, I’m not.”
- “I can stop any time.”
- “I hate it but I can’t stop it. I’m a part of the problem I hate.”
If John Harris is addicted to the freak show, he’s not the only one.
In fact with words and language being among the most deeply shared of all human traits – while at the same time being so much more ephemeral than tangible materials and physical actions – our addiction to the freak show may be the ultimate case of “we’re all in this together” as we try to puzzle it out.
If we are addicted to the freak show, what exactly is the heroin that’s hooked us?
What steps should we take to get free of the addiction and what personal, spiritual and emotional supports will we need to stay off the hard stuff for good?
There are pretty good answers to these questions, I think.
They come from an unlikely source — unlikely, that is, from the perspective of 21st century Americans working in media newsrooms and in legislative chambers, and gathered around dinner tables or in kitchens or wherever people talk, reading and watching and listening to the news, discussing the substance of their days.
The source is the spiritual sage and ethicist called the Buddha, especially his teachings on “Right Speech,” a compendium of advice on how to speak to others in such a way that conversation is strengthened and community is sustained.
More on “Right Speech” next week.