Saturday, July 19, 2008

The honesty double-standard

As I expand my reading list (yes, there will soon be a blogroll), I've been catching up on old posts. One of the blogs I've been reading is PressThink, home to Jay Rosen's incisive (albeit often lengthy) commentary on modern media.

After citizen journalist Mayhill Fowler's run-in with Bill Clinton on June 2, Rosen published an extremely thorough round-up of media reactions to what is now dubbed "PurdumGate."

Fowler committed the heinous crime of failing to inform Clinton that she was a citizen journalist or that she was recording the conversation (her recorder was in her hand, but apparently he didn't notice it). Clinton let his guard down (you can listen here) and spoke honestly and passionately to Fowler about Todd Purdum's Vanity Fair article, The Comeback Id. Needless to say, Clinton was not pleased to discover the conversation, with commentary, published on the Huffington Post's citizen journalist campaign section, Off the Bus. Both Fowler and Clinton regret the incident; Fowler wishes she'd remembered, in the heat of the moment, to identify herself, and Clinton probably wishes he hadn't let his guard down.

The incident hit a nerve with many media members (for a summary, check out Rosen's blog post as linked above).

Reading those reactions, I had a bit of an epiphany.

Old-school reporters hold themselves to a very strict code of ethics. Most believe that we must disclose who we are to sources. If the story is important enough and there's no other way of getting the information, this rule can be bent or in rare cases, broken.

In many of the excerpts Rosen quoted, it's clear that members of the traditional media feel that this is important, because otherwise, politicians would always have to be on their guard. And what a horrible way for them to live!

But wait. Why are they on their guard in the first place? What's so bad about the public seeing them as they really are - humans? The reason is simple. Politicians wear personas the way we might wear hats or masks. The guy we vote for probably doesn't even really exist. He's a carefully crafted ideal designed to capture votes. And most of us expect it, because being an honest and open politician just isn't the done thing.

So we bend over backwards to pretend that there is no man behind the curtain. We strive to be honest so that politicians can continue to be dishonest and lie to us about who they are. We must be honest and disclose at all times, but politicians are expected, always, to present a false facade, a lie. We aid and abet that by allowing them to choose what is and isn't off the record.

I don't mean to suggest that journalists should start lying about who we are. Nor am I suggesting that we should stop disclosing our intent before an interview. But when politicians complain about being on the record all the time (which is increasingly the case what with so many people blogging), we shouldn't feel sorry for them. If they were honest in the first place, and presented themselves as they are, being on the record all the time wouldn't be a problem in the first place, and voters would know who they are really voting for. In essence, elections could be about the issues instead of the image.

Food for thought.


Yaksman said...

The problem is that politician's pronouncements are held to a ridiculously high standard. I'm not familiar with the Clinton interview you mention, but there are plenty of examples of relatively innocuous comments being twisted around and used to attack the politician. Sometimes this is done for partisan reasons, or sometimes just to manufacture a story. If the public relaxes the scrutiny, then politicos can relax their personas.

Miriam Boon said...

@yaksman: That's very true.

I'd like to think that if the current trend continues, and we begin to see more and more of politicians' unguarded moments, that they will give up on hiding themselves as a futile effort. And I also hope that in the face of the avalanche of negative things we will discover about candidates and politicians, the nitpicking will become impossible because there are too many flaws.

I also think it is worth pointing out that this fixation on a perfect facade is very much an American thing. Canadian, French, and even British politicians are given a lot more leeway for being only human.

Yaksman said...

Good point.
Trudeau was loved for giving protesters the finger.
Cretien choked a protester, and while it wasn't as popular, he got some praise out of it.
Even Harp.... well, he's not human anyway so he doesn't need leeway for it. :-)