This evening I happened to have been inadvertently exposed to NPR’s “Talk of The Nation,” hosted by Neal Conan. I was listening with about half an ear to a segment called, “Op-Ed: Now's The Time For A Candid Candidate,” with guest Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who is the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which runs FactCheck.org. The gist of the piece seemed to be that if the candidates were held to some standard of truth by the media, they would be more forthcoming about their real policy intentions, which would then foster a more aware electorate and make for a more functional government by virtue of more explicit mandates. This is from the transcript:
JAMIESON: Well, the campaign discourse and the advertising in '80 is actually exemplary in its accuracy, but also for a second reason. Ronald Reagan in 1980 engaged in longer forms of communication with the electorate. And what I argue in the op-ed piece in The Washington Post is those longer forms are the way in which you bind the electorate to the kind of governance that you're going to offer. And this year, with the tough choices we're facing, it's important that candidates are candid about them and that we don't penalize them for their candor.A bit more back-and-forth, then Neal opened up the phone lines:
In order to be candid with us, they're going to have to have longer forms of communication. We're going to have the substantive debates with a good moderator follow up. We're going to have the fact-checking that continues to be aggressive at the national and state level, particularly in those battleground states, and stations are going to have insist on accuracy of those third-party ads.
You put all those things together, and I think we create a climate in which the candid candidate cannot only win, but by winning that way will be empowered to govern in a different way, a way that doesn't carry the immediate penalty of risk of losing whatever you've gained in the off-year election.
CONAN: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, "Looking for an Honest Politician." Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Why is it politicians have so much difficulty being candid? Let's begin with Bob, and Bob's on the line with us from Suffern, New York.
BOB: Yes. And the reason politicians have so much difficulty being candid is we do not want to hear the truth. What we want to hear is rhetoric that conforms to our prejudice because no politician gets elected in America by telling the people the truth. And you have organized opposition to the truth in the form of the Republican initiatives against global warming, the Republican initiative about teach the controversy between creationism and evolution. I mean, it's all nonsense, but you got significance segments of a population that sign on to it because they just do not want to hear the truth.
My ears pricked up. My expectations were suddenly, and unexpectedly, aroused. How would a nationally known, middle-of-the road, and rather benign radio news personality, doing a piece about the role of the media in holding political candidates to some reasonable standard of truth, deal with essentially being called out for the legitimization and elevation into the public dialog of concepts like creationism and climate-change denial? Would he break down and admit that creationism was perhaps a bridge too far for a 21st century democracy premised on the Enlightenment? My brain buzzed. Would I be disappointed?
CONAN: It might be fair to characterize some of those groups as conservative, Bob, but to say they're Republican...As dodges go, I think this one has to rate among the more embarrassing, implying, as it does, that there is a meaningful conservative movement in this country outside of the Republican Party. But that’s not even the best part:
BOB: No, no. It's not just...
CONAN: To say the Republican is - they're not associated with the Republican Party, but, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, there's one of the fact checks, I guess.
CONAN: To be fair to Bob, our caller, he was calling about more values issues. He was talking about, well, Darwinism. We can argue about that, but let's take the issue of gay marriage. There's no numbers you can add up saying, this makes it clear that this is the situation. It's a matter of - for a lot of people, it's a matter of faith. And for a lot of people, it's a matter of belief.This is where I yell at the radio.
Sorry, Neal. Neither Darwinism (evolution) nor global warming are “values issues.” And they actually aren’t things we can argue about - unless we’re discussing the finer points of species differentiation or ocean dynamics. There actually are numbers you can add up saying, “this makes it clear that this is the situation.” Evolution has been taught and studied in universities for more than a century and a half. It’s no more a social issue than quantum physics. And to make it one is to discredit all of science, which some might argue is the ultimate goal. Your guest on this segment said, “the public doesn't have to understand all of the ins and outs of how the conclusion was reached. If the public comes to understand that it is an expert consensus, the public does tend to accept it.”
It's really amazing how easily the facade of serious inquiry disappears when the subject matter turns to the medium. To be fair to Neal, our host, I'd really like to know if his original question, "why is it politicians have so much difficulty being candid?” was intentionally rhetorical.