Friday, July 06, 2007

Moths and Butterflies

During the immigration bill debates, one of the weirdest comments I read in the postmortem was the mainstream journalism complaint that "Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity were more powerful than George Bush." It's distressing to think that the people whose job it is to report to us what's happening in the country don't know how the country works.

There is only a limited amount of political persuasion happening at any given time. Most people have their ideas already up and running when a debate starts, and are listening to hear whose ideas are closest to theirs, or is reasoning from the same values they are. The talk radio people had views on immigration that were much closer to what most Americans thought, and articulated them. They didn't make anyone think like them. Talk radio hosts have no power beyond some persuasion. A US president has some things he can make the country do even if no one agrees with him. While his power ultimately derives from popular support and is modified by that support throughout his term, he has actual authority, not just influence.

For political journalists not to be aware of this leaves us with few possibilities about their thinking, none of which are encouraging:

1. They believe that polls actually do govern America, which is why they spend so much time on them. And why they have such inflated views of themselves as opinion-makers.

2. They believe that a few people can influence polls with a wave of the hand. The conservative accusation is that liberals are too easily influenced by the opinions of others. For journalists to hand them evidence of this seems odd.

3. They don't really know how government works.

All have something going for them as explanations, but leave me with the uncomfortable feeling that they seem remarkably self-assured in their pronouncements for people who don't know anything. And this last thought leads me to the part about the moths and the butterflies.

There are some types of moth that have evolved to look less tasty by disguising themselves as butterflies. Journalists go through a similar process. They rise in their profession by giving the appearance of knowing something. By vocabulary, location, tone of voice, and dress they look like informed people. I am not trying to insult the American people by saying that the citizenry is too easily fooled by these plausible charlatans. These imitation wise people are the best of the best fakes, winnowed out from thousands of candidates over extended periods. Some of them actually are intelligent and informed, providing cover for the others.

But actual knowledge and intelligence are irrelevant - the seeming is what matters. They are moths disguised as butterflies


cold pizza said...

A sub-species of moth must be Hollywoodius Celebritius who, with no education, training or experience, are able to pontificate on the proper role of the US vis-a-vis foreign policy. Looks tasty but ultimately poison. -cp

GM Roper said...

AVI, I suggest this post should be required reading for all prospective and current journalists.