Pundit’s Pathetic Audacity of Nope

Tracey Barnett ©February 2010

Our priorities are wacked.

We will stop to read about one Haitian man found alive after 27 days, yet stories on ten of thousands of other survivors won’t see the light of day more than two months out of this news cycle.

You may read about the United States choosing to cut funding to the manned space programme, but how many of us have even heard about the 32 new planets that have just been discovered this past October?

We jumped up and down about John Key having shares in a uranium mining company this week.  Yet we spent relatively tiny amounts of media focus on a subject Key proposed the same week to mine our national parks, though the decision to do so may have decades-long consequences on the perception of our country’s brand and the scars it may inflict on a precious resource, our national parks.

The nature of the beast, right? New will always trump important.  But it was only after I returned home from a self-imposed news blackout for a month [which I highly recommend] over summer holidays that something hit me that I never expected.

My profession sucks at what they do.  Let me be very specific. Commentators, pundits, columnists, people like me who get their little heads put in a box on the left side of the story, are myopic sheep— on a good day.

Someone finds a way to start the news narrative and like clueless lemmings, we all jump into the same plotline to finish each other’s sentences, clinging to that week’s page one.

You don’t notice it when you’re a daily reader.  But when I returned to it with fresh eyes, I saw entire waves of news narratives that felt hopelessly unimportant to any sane man’s idea of the big picture.

Around Christmas, Barack Obama was the compromising Statesman buried in the whitewater of political reality, but pushing through.  Most thought some form of the health care legislation was “likely” to pass and he had a chance at being the only president since Lyndon Johnson to get something, anything, done on the issue.

Cut to six weeks later: One former naked Cosmo centrefold gets elected as a Republican Senator from Massachusetts and the whole narrative changed overnight—not just on healthcare either.  The new dog-pack mantra for February; Obama’s presidency is toast.

Last week’s Listener recently teased an otherwise excellent article by Jon Johansson with, “As President Obama stands on the precipice of failure just one short year after his resounding presidential victory…” like he was God’s American Idol contestant just spit out by Simon Cowell.

There is a reason they call it ‘perspective’.   I have plenty of problems with some of Obama’s policies [Afghanistan, Nuclear power] and sure, Democrats will lose big-time next year, but no historian would close the books on an entire presidency by its first year.  What did you expect after 13 months—Narnia?  Yet, if you took the collective handwriting of those of my profession, commentators almost universally assessed Obama by his approval numbers the week of his one-year anniversary.

At George W. Bush’s one-year mark, his approval numbers soared to 80 percent.  Why? Americans felt the need to rally around their president after 9/11.  That’s got nothing to do with where he ended up.  By the time he left office, 60 percent of historians ranked Bush as one of America’s all-time worst presidents.

What would have happened if pundits used the rate of bills passed in Congress that the President had come out to support?  Obama got the highest pass rate of any president in the five decades since they started recording the number, at 96.7 percent, according to The Congressional Quarterly.  Depends who’s holding the reins of the narrative that moment, doesn’t it?

Obama may become a single term president, but its no surprise that every president within recent memory got the same forecast at his first anniversary, notably Ronald Regan, whose recession approval ratings roughly mirrored Obama’s by the middle of his first term.

You can blame editors for trying to pull in eyeballs by deferring to the new.  But commentators don’t have that excuse.  We have a huge luxury.  Our job should be to pull back and describe the entire landscape, not just the dog poop on the corner.  Yet we latch onto reporting politics as the latest punch-up because it’s too bloody hard to explain the entire war.

Who really loses this battle?  All of us, because we start to see the world like its one continuous action movie.

We get so sucked into the vortex of the endlessly hungry daily news machine, we begin to think every story is about the fight, not the resolution.  Suddenly our job becomes declaring momentary winners and losers. Which begs the question, how many commentators do you read that don’t chain themselves to the weekly news cycle and truly look above the parapet?

If you find them, let me know.  Because that kind of bigger vision deserves everybody’s focus.

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