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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog


"It keeps getting earlier, doesn't it?" says a presidential aide to an ambitious Congressman on The West Wing. On the show, it was the morning after Election Night, and the Congressman was already asking the aide about help for the presidential race four years later.

Here we are, 504 days from the real-life Election Day, (here's a second-by-second countdown if you want to be more specific), and already the presidential campaign is getting hard to ignore. Now that President Bush has officially announced that he's running, and the nine Democratic candidates have already appeared in their first debate, election coverage figures to be front-page news for the next year and a half.

The question is whether this is a good thing for our country. How much will the inevitable blanket coverage help us as citizens by enhancing our understanding of the candidates and the wisdom of their plans (or lack thereof), and how much of our time will be wasted by tireless speculation about campaign strategy and poll numbers? The guess here is strategy will again win out, and democracy will be an election loser. In May 1999, with 502 days until the 2000 presidential election, I wrote at my personal Web site about a Newsweek cover story on Al Gore's strategy, including an interview asking him why he was "behind early." Never mind what Gore wanted to actually do as president—something the country hadn't had a chance to hear yet. Four years later, Time magazine has already run a cover story on what the Democrats need to do to win in 2004 (summary here), two weeks after a feature on President Bush's election "playbook" (summary here). Elsewhere, a style of who's-hot-and-who's-not election reporting has taken over.

In incisive critique of the news media, Breaking the News: How The Media Undermine American Democracy, James Fallows says that the media have a "one-track mind"—an outlook he calls Reductio ad Electum—reducing the importance of current events to merely how they affect political strategy. National security, the economy and health care are presented to us not as issues but as means by which politicians gain or lose power. And so after a terrorist bombing in Riyadh last month, one of the first things I heard on the evening news was not what happened and why, but how Democrats could be expected to use this to make President Bush look bad on national security. In a recent front-page New York Times story on whether low-income tax credits would be included in the new batch of tax cuts, the focus was whether Republicans would be hurt by criticism of how they handled the bill, not why lawmakers thought the policy itself was a good or bad idea. "The relentless emphasis on the cynical game of politics threatens public life itself," Fallows writes, "by implying day after day that the political sphere is mainly an arena in which ambitious politicians struggle for dominance, rather than a structure in which citizens can deal with worrisome collective problems."

No wonder citizens get cynical about politics and voting. How about a letter-writing campaign to editors asking them to find a way to more engagingly cover the issues this election cycle rather than settling for mind-numbing horse-race analysis? After all, it's in the media's interest to hold ours. Otherwise, it's going to be a long 504 days.


My October 2000 column on sports metaphors in election coverage
"Spirals of Cynicism," a lecture by Kathleen Hall Jamieson on the press and the public from Calvin College's January Series.

Previous Filter: Watching the war in Iraq


From the London Guardian:

If you wanted to design an experiment to measure the effect on humans of almost inconceivably radical culture shock, you could not do much better than the one that has just begun to unfold with the arrival, deep in the American heartland, of the Somali Bantu. They are often referred to as one of the most isolated peoples on earth, and they are certainly one of the least westernised. Descended from slaves brought to Somalia from Mozambique and Tanzania, they worked in serfdom for decades before being forced to flee during the Somalian civil war. Mozambique and Tanzania refused to take them in, and for the past few years they have eked out an existence in Kenyan refugee camps. But now, in one of the largest transplantations of its type in recent history, most of the 12,000 Bantu tribespeople in Kenya are moving to the suburbs of the US, which granted them asylum in the late 90s. The Mberwa family—including Hassan's mother, Khadija, his wife Nurto, and six of their eight children, aged between two and 16—are the very first pioneers in the American west, only this time with freeways and Whataburgers. Full story
There is a mood of unreality in Los Angeles at the moment. Normally, at this time of the year everyone would be watching the National Basketball Association play-offs on television and seeing the local team, the LA Lakers, win the championship and then enjoying a downtown lap of honour in front of the mayor and tens of thousands of cheering citizenry. … But this year, for some bizarre reason, the Lakers are not in the finals. … The sports bars which should be crowded with Lakers' fans in purple and gold regalia are strangely silent. The buses don't carry their "Go Lakers" slogan on their destination boards and there are no Lakers flags attached to the SUVs rolling down the 405 and the 101. … For now, LA's greatest sporting moments have either become part of a musical or named after a cartoon character. Full story


Speaking of the media, Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post makes a good point in a column I mostly disagreed with. Rather than overhauling their journalism curriculum, as Columbia University is doing, why don't colleges worry about producing good readers and viewers as well as reporters? "Presumably, one task of college is to engage students in the big ideas and events of their time," Samuelson wrote. "On the evidence, that's not happening. Why—and what should colleges do about it?"

With an eye to the crucial link colleges and universities forge between ideas and society, this occasional category of the weblog will round up stories about higher education. This week, all are from the Chronicle of Higher Education unless noted otherwise.

  • Whether to write about their research, reach a non-academic audience, or just get some things off their chests, scholars have taken to weblogs. Although law professor Glenn Reynolds' InstaPundit remains the most popular by far, a host of other academics are blogging. The question remains, says the Chronicle: "Is this a revolution in academic discourse, or is it CB radio?"
  • For African American women—historically among the most marginalized members of society—few benchmarks could be as satisfying, it seems, as permeating the ranks of the intellectual elite. But a Ph.D. can lead to isolation and even resentment of females in African American culture, writes Trudier Harris, an English professor at the University of North Carolina, in a memoir excerpted in the Chronicle.
  • In the past five years, some three dozen university presses have suffered the resignation or retirement of their directors. And turnover is just one of the problems in the industry, writes Willis G. Regier, director of the University of Illinois Press. He identifies five problems and nine solutions for ailing university presses.
  • Public colleges are feeling the pinch of state budget crises. Some are under pressure to focus on research centers instead of students. A few states are looking to lottery revenue to provide scholarship dollars. And some schools are recruiting alumni, parents and students to lobby lawmakers about the budget.
  • This year's crop of college graduates is struggling to find jobs, says the San Diego Union-Tribune (more from the National Association of Colleges and Employers).
  • In England, postwar campus architecture is set to be rated historically significant, writes Jonathan Glancey in the London Guardian.
  • Goodbye, Lingua Franca; Hello, Boston Globe: Alex Star brings an academic touch to the Globe's "Ideas" section, says Slate and MediaBistro.com.
  • Earlier in this weblog: the college admissions frenzy (fourth item here)


For links with an * you can log in with member name and password of "bcread"

  • After the September 2000 shooting of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura in Israeli-Palestinian crossfire in Gaza, television footage of his death was played and replayed by international media until the image became an icon of Israeli ruthlessness. The scene is commemorated on a postage stamp in Egypt and mentioned in one of Osama bin Laden's taped rants, and the boy's name marks a park in Morocco. But in James Fallows' look back at the incident in this month's Atlantic Monthly, some questions about the infamous incident emerge. Physically, how could Israeli fire have hit the boy from where they where shooting? Chronologically, why does TV coverage of a funeral march for the boy seem to occur hours before he actually died? Deconstructing the events of that confusing afternoon goes beyond "the realm of geometry and ballistics and enter[s] the world of politics, paranoia, fantasy, and hatred," Fallows writes. The shooting and its aftermath is a case study in the political potency of the televised image, and a lesson that even when several TV cameras are watching, they may obscure the truth as much as they capture it.
  • Dr. Francis Braceland helped to turn Hartford's Institute of Living into the nation's largest private psychiatric hospital. A devout Catholic, Braceland played a central role in easing the Catholic Church's distrust of psychiatry throughout the fifties and sixties, and by the eighties, archdioceses starting sending priests to Braceland's institute to be cured of various disorders, including sexual ones. Now, the American Catholic Church's policy of quietly sending priests to therapists rather than reporting their offenses to the police has become one of the most troulbing aspects of the recent wave of priest abuse scandals, says Barry Werth in the New Yorker.
  • Malpractice insurance is creating a new geography and methodology of medicine, says a Time magazine cover story. Skyrocketing insurance premiums are driving doctors from Florida, Nevada, and Pennsylvania to states where insurance is more affordable, such as Indiana and California. Other veteran doctors are simply calling it quits. Many rural patients have to drive an hour to have a baby delivered. Meanwhile, the doctors who are in business are starting to choose less risky areas of medicine to practice, and guard against lawsuits by ordering unnecessary tests that drive up costs. The result is an urgent health care crisis.
    http://www.time.com/time/covers …
    -How to fix it, by attorney Philip K. Howard in Time
  • Two years ago, shrimp overtook tuna as the nation's most eaten seafood. Even in a bad economy, high-end seafood is a thriving industry. But now that scientists are getting a better look at what fishing practices are doing to the world's oceans, they're worried, says a cover story in U.S. News & World Report. Fish farming was supposed to help, but even that practice has raised so many environmental red flags that a moratorium on new farms has been requested. The good news is, modest changes in how seafood is caught could have a major environmental impact.
    http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue …
  • Speaking of fish, with the release of Finding Nemo, the ascent of Pixar Studios as a cultural force seems complete. The makers of Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. have been praised as "the most reliable creative force in Hollywood" and "the next Disney." But is the legacy of Disney (which distributes Pixar movies) one to envy? After all, the company is blamed for being an anasthetizing force in American culture, mass producing two-dimensional characters and feel-good stories that distorts reality. But give Pixar credit, says Chris Suellentrop in Slate. They may be formulaic, but Pixar's movies are not so simple that Disney has them figured out: "If it were easy to package an entertaining blend of celebrity voices, pop-culture references, and an evil kid who threatens our lovable characters, all set to a Randy Newman song, Disney wouldn't be putting out garbage like Treasure Planet." Suellentrop doesn't really evaluate the question of whether Disney's artificial world truly is malevolent and whether Pixar perpetuates such an evil, but he provides a timely look at the money and the power of children's entertainment.
  • The Los Angeles Lakers missed the NBA playoffs this year (see Places&Culture above), but that isn't a reflection on one crucial member of the team: Chris Bodaken. As the Lakers' video coordinator, Bodaken becomes a hermit at playoff time, editing hours of game footage to help the coaches plot strategy. Recently, new digital editing software has taken some of the all-nighters out of his job. The software stores several years' worth of game footage, spits out detailed statistics, and can retrieve such specific categories as "all of Shaq's post-ups on the left side of the key against Sacramento this season," Bodaken says. It's just one example of how digital technology is changing the sports world, writes Business Week in a special section on technology and sports.
    http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily …
  • Time excerpts Hillary Clinton's memoir, Newsweek looks into male depression, and more from Slate's "In Other Magazines."

Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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