Matt Bai, How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics
If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else. By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would be: “We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.”
As an industry, we aspired chiefly to show politicians for the impossibly flawed human beings they are: a single-minded pursuit that reduced complex careers to isolated transgressions. As the former senator Bob Kerrey, who has acknowledged participating in an atrocity as a soldier in Vietnam, told me once, “We’re not the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives, and there’s a tendency to think that we are.” That quote, I thought, should have been posted on the wall of every newsroom in the country, just to remind us that it was true.
Predictably, politicians responded to all this with a determination to give us nothing that might aid in the hunt to expose them, even if it meant obscuring the convictions and contradictions that made them actual human beings. Each side retreated to its respective camp, where they strategized about how to outwit and outflank the other, occasionally to their own benefit but rarely to the voters’. Maybe this made our media a sharper guardian of the public interest against liars and hypocrites. But it also made it hard for any thoughtful politician to offer arguments that might be considered nuanced or controversial. It drove a lot of potential candidates with complex ideas away from the process, and it made it easier for a lot of candidates who knew nothing about policy to breeze into national office, because there was no expectation that a candidate was going to say anything of substance anyway.
i’m letting you know
that there ain’t no gun they make
that can kill my soul
A new Pew Research Center analysis of media coverage of the event and subsequent protests finds that the story emerged on Twitter before cable, but the trajectory of attention quickly rose in tandem, peaking on both mediums the day after two journalists were arrested and protests turned more violent.
Also of note:
- MSNBC devoted far more time to the story than its top competitors Fox News and CNN
- The Twitter conversation about Ferguson popped much more quickly than the conversation about Trayvon Martin
Protesters upset about the smearing of Mike Brown converged at CNN headquarters.
“When it started raining and lightning and the crowd didn’t disperse, my energy level shot up,” said Kwame Thompson, an attorney in Atlanta and St. Louis. “It was a peaceful demonstration that was against police brutality and in support of Mike Brown and his family.”
This feels unprecedented.