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View From Nowhere Will Lead Parties to Censor Themselves

2012 January 15
by Eric Horowitz

Read the following two quotes about Mitt Romney being attacked by his rivals over his time at Bain. The first is from Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight:

When the truth behind a claim is hard to discern, voters sometimes use the heuristic of looking at what partisan actors say. If one side makes one argument, and the other side rebuts it word for word, the public may come to regard it as a typical partisan squabble or conclude that the truth boils down to a matter of opinion.

However, if one side makes its point unambiguously, while the other side hedges and does not seem to have its story straight, the public may conclude that the truth lies on the side of the group that has articulated its case more vigorously. This dynamic may have worked to the Democrats’ disadvantage during the health care debates of 2009 and 2010.

The second quote is in TPM’s election coverage and comes from a “senior Democratic strategist.”

“We were shocked that his rivals went there but nonetheless pleased because now the charges about his status as a corporate raider enjoy the lustre of bipartisan ship.”

Both quotes essentially say the same thing. In a world where objective political truth is rapidly fading away, what matters is not the content of an argument, but the strength with which the argument’s proponents support the argument and refute its critics. You don’t need a professional game theorist to tell you how that ends. Eventually both sides will realize the optimal strategy is to never criticize your own side and always criticize your opposition no matter what. We are already close to that point, but deviations from that strategy appear from time to time (e.g. heatlhcare, Bain, etc.) Once we do get to that point we will live in a political system that has essentially chosen voluntary censorship. The costs of speaking out against your own side will be too high. Nobody will do it.

How did we get to this point? A key factor is that the media neutered itself with what Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere.” By avoiding commentary about the veracity of political statements, the media helped create a world where the only way to judge the value of those statements is look at  the net support or opposition coming from the two political parties. Or as Silver says, to use “the heuristic of looking at what partisan actors say.”

The question then, is whether it is possible to reverse the trend. I think there is a solution, but it will require difficult institutional changes that have long escaped our political and media organizations. The media must transform political journalism by finally taking a stand against the press-release culture that controls the industry. Right now journalists are slaves to political communications departments. When a new issue makes headlines, journalists need a response from John Boehner, and more often than not they are forced to print a piece of whatever vacuous statement his press office puts out. This must stop. When a politician proposes a bill, don’t just print a quote from an opposition press secretary. Make them give a response full of logical arguments. If they can’t do that, don’t print the response.

The idea of not printing something from both sides is anathema to the “view from nowhere” culture, but holding out for substance makes it impossible for every piece of a political party to recite the same vacuous talking points. The result is that if politicians want to be heard, they will be forced to give logical and nuanced statements that most likely will not be a full endorsement of their party or a full rebuttal of the opposition. Eventually this may stem our slide into an area of voluntary censorship, but it won’t happen until journalists first take a stand against the he said-she said, press-release-printing norms that pervade political journalism.

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