Our patience for political theater criticism around these parts tends to wax and wane. Yes, pondering the optics of a political event or debate is a worthwhile endeavor, if the job at hand is purely to analyze which political figures are Winning or Losing the political narrative, but national newspapers and, especially, television networks have long treated optics as the defining rule of government coverage.
No matter what gets passed, what gets proposed, how many people die of X or are driven to bankruptcy by Y, the cheapest possible coverage is to stand a partisan or putatively less-partisan observer up and ask them: Well then, what did you think of that?
There’s 1 million dead Americans. Did a national leader project the right gravitas in acknowledging that? Was it a good political move to acknowledge it? How will political opponents respond to the acknowledgement?
An interstate highway bridge collapses, causing deaths. Which political party might best be posed to capitalize on the narrative of broken infrastructure? How will political opponents respond?
A now-rapidly changing climate is creating gargantuan new western fires, drying up rivers worldwide, threatens every coastal city in every coastal state, and will in our children’s lifetimes render parts of the American south functionally uninhabitable without access to air conditioning. Will a new lobbying effort by oil producers bend the narrative in favor of ignoring the problem? How will this affect political spending by the handful of Americans wealthy enough to single-handedly create new political narratives all on their own?
Flip to any “news” channel’s live programs and you’re not likely, during any given segment, to come away understanding more about infrastructure lifespan or the economic implications of over 1 million unexpected U.S. deaths. You’re not likely to know how many schoolchildren hid under their desks today due to shots fired nearby. You won’t learn which specific neighborhoods in your city are, from the standpoint of insurance companies and government experts alike, so at risk of near-future flooding that the properties will soon become functionally valueless.
You will see, however, stock footage of each thing being discussed as political experts and professional partisan narrative-builders discuss how the latest preventable deaths or brazen acts of corruption might shift the narratives of what various politicians in America might want to promote. The problem with political theater criticism is that American journalism is addicted to it as if it were opium. Every snippet of our lives that so much as brushes against government for possible solutions is huffed up by battalions of “political” journalists who compulsively report what a battalion of “political” experts-for-hire believe to be the political implications of high insulin prices, or lower insulin prices, or another grade school classroom full of bleeding-out children, or an act of violence-provoking sedition.
The equally obvious problem with political theater criticism is the quantum one. The critics deem reporting the preferred narratives of each partisan to be the essence of their “political” duties, and all but insist their battalion of sought-after sources snow them with as much audaciousness as possible. Journalism is the audience for the narrative. It’s the whole point. Nobody in midwestern diners or at San Diego Comic-Con or at anything between will know a damn thing about the narrative unless it makes it to the televisions or the radio or the papers.
The very act of “analyzing” the politics changes the politics. It boosts whatever narrative the column-writers themselves find most convincing. It’s self-referential to the point of narcissistic, and as inbred as old European royalty. Having a majority of all national journalism in the country devoted to repeating politicians’ opinions about how we should feel about the issues a much smaller portion of national journalism is bothering to explain is … taxing. At best.
Now comes the part where you wonder where I’m going with this, and here you go. Unfortunately. A purely theater-criticism analysis from Peter Baker in The New York Times gives the paper another breather from having to report actual events by instead taking a step back to report on how it all looks, to a Washington, D.C., press corps that would respond to everything from a million dead Americans to an imminent world-ending asteroid strike with the same shouted questions about political optics.
It’s titled “Even on Biden’s Big Day, He’s Still in Trump’s Long Shadow,” and is fully premised on the presumed optics of President Joe Biden’s signing of the most significant climate legislation in forever getting less attention, from the sort of reporters that work for The New York Times, than Donald Trump’s ongoing circus of post-coup crimes and light treasons.
I mean … yeah. Yeah, that is sort of how that works. The cure for cancer could be invented tomorrow and out of the entire New York Times or Washington Post press rooms, there’s maybe one in 10 reporters who would rush to that briefing if the timing put it in direct competition with a House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy Disembowels An Orphan In The Rotunda photo-op.
Passing legislation to solve world-threatening problems simply cannot compete, in America’s newsrooms, with Donald Trump Throws A Pie. It doubly can’t compete if the pie contains multiple felonies and a strong smell of outright nuclear treason.
And that, announces the gathered political press, is a Joe Biden problem.
Uuuuuuughyouknow… you know … hmm. This is the conundrum. As a piece of theater criticism, Baker is absolutely right. Yes, it is hard for Joe Biden to compete with the news that his predecessor, a clownishly corrupt good-for-nothing who was impeached for an act of self-serving international extortion, impeached again after gathering a violent, armed mob to assault a joint session of Congress in a first-ever attempt to topple United States by coup, is now at the center of a criminal espionage investigation involving government nuclear weapons secrets.
But it’s also a hell of a thing to see a notoriously crooked and greedy ex-president at the center of a criminal espionage investigation for taking government nuclear weapons secrets to the club he uses to host foreign officials and agents keenly interested in U.S. nuclear secrets and, on reflex, once again focus one’s attention on asking how political figures should feel about that. Is it making them sad? Is it upsetting their own narratives?
Look, buddy, I don’t know what to tell you here but the current news cycle consists of a bunch of very informed national security experts nervously pondering a lot of circumstantial evidence suggesting a known-crooked ex-president was collecting top secret government documents to use as bargaining chips in future business dealings with not-necessarily-friendly foreign governments and America—no, the world—absolutely under no circumstances wants to be dealing with any new issue or crisis that tops that on a given news day.
That’s the holy grail of news stories. Ex-President Follows Up Coup Attempt With Possible Nuclear Espionage is the sort of headline a past New York Times would be blaring about in font sizes usually reserved for declarations of war, back when it didn’t tie itself in knots with attempts to make sure it was balancing treason and not-treason in equal proportions so that nobody would squeal too loudly. How the hell would you even top that?
And how the hell do you watch that happening, oh valiant battalion of supposedly top political reporters in the country, and compulsively wonder to each other whether the sedition-backing possible foreign agent is stealin’ Biden’s news thunder, what with his being caught in layer after layer of new felonies.
If any politician in the country wants to follow that up with a story they think should make bigger headlines than Ex-President Possible Foreign Spy, their aides should tie them to a chair rather than let them inflict such a thing on America. No orphan dissections today, thanks. No secret plans to nuke California until the San Andreas Fault gives way. No revealing you have been, this whole time, fifty squirrels writhing inside a human-shaped sack.
“Former president suspected of stealing nuclear secrets for his own personal gain” is a story that rightfully deserves to steal the headlines for a while. Is anyone seriously going to argue it is not?
The thing of it is, this is … a fantastic theater piece. I mean it. Here we see in one breezy report the American journalism fetish of wondering how an unambiguously criminal act, a huge story, a possible national betrayal will overshadow another politician’s narrative.
There’s no condemnation of the unfathomably corrupt act. There’s no value judgement made on whether a man who caused deaths in the U.S. Capitol rather than acknowledge his own election loss might finally prove, with these new insults to our laws, might be bad. Heavens no, we in journalism are not here to make editorial judgements on acts of (violent!) political corruption. We are here to determine whether the narratives that result from inciting a violent mob to seek vengeance on a vice president or from making off with classified documents as your supposed personal, sellable property look better for the criminal, or for law enforcement, or for some new political face looking to “capitalize” on the emotions of the public after the public hears about all this.
Imagine the top national reporters for the top national news outlets finding themselves unable to muster an opinion on whether a major elected official’s repeated commission of crimes against the United States might be a bad thing, and instead falling over themselves to bring you the news of what the seditionist’s supporters feel about the crimes, or what the criminal’s top party strategists believe the narrative of the crimes should be. Imagine them maintaining a studious air of neutrality on the whole topple-the-United-States-goverment thing, instead bringing their attention to the question of whether the architect’s unending torrent of new crimes is causing non-criminals to chafe over not getting the same media attention.
And we’re there. We’re exactly there, because every last person you see sitting in the chairs in Washington, D.C., press conferences is there to tell you what a politician said, whether what they said will impact the narrative of the day, what other politicians might say to attempt to coax reporters into other narratives, and who the flying hell even cares about whatever the actual issue being addressed was—if it can even be remembered.
Something about climate change, was it? Or new drug pricing? That’s something for the back pages. That’s something for the cheap reporters to cover, not the expensive ones with anonymous sources that know the narratives before anyone else knows the narratives. The front-page news is whether the coup-attempting hoax promoter leading a band of violent insurrectionist thugs before swiftly moving on to the next crime will be effective in setting a new press narrative that helps facilitate his political return. Oh, we can’t wait. It’s so exciting. Imagine all the narratives that could be produced from a descent into fascism caused by widespread public contempt for holding the powerful accountable. Imagine the political analysis that would result. Truly, a golden time for political journalism.