Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Substance, Style, and Knowing the Difference

I finally got to the NYT Style section from Sunday, and spotted this gem:
“The fabric of politics has always been gossip and jokes and crazy personality stuff and memes,” he said, a little angrily. “I mean, Dukakis in the tank, that’s a meme. Political coverage that wants to be solely high-minded is missing huge chunks of the actual interplay of personality and power that is what actually drives things.” 
He in this case being Buzzfeed's Ben Smith.

Look: it's really, really okay to cover "gossip and jokes and crazy personality stuff and memes." That stuff is fun to read! I love a lot of it!

But don't feel that you have to justify it by saying that it "actually drives things" when it doesn't. Dukakis in a tank didn't "actually drive things," other than a bit of press coverage that voters paid no attention to. To bring us up to date: etch-a-sketch didn't actually drive things, nor did...ah, I think that John Sides had a list of them, but I can't find it just now.

Granted, there's some "high-minded" stuff that doesn't drive things either! But that's okay, too.

Reporters: it's totally fine for you to cover the fun parts of politics. You're telling your readers and viewers interesting stories; that's fine -- and at least from my perspective, much better than turning yourselves into glorified local news reporters (weather! murders! cruise ship mishaps!). All you have to do to keep me and others from being cranky is to stop claiming more for your stories than they can support.

Both the style and the substance of politics are worthwhile subjects for reporters. Just don't confuse them. Okay?


  1. From Pailhead's 1987 single "I Will Refuse":

    The world is confused
    Murder and weather
    Is our only news
    I will refuse!

    Not sure if you are channeling or not but it brought back memories.

  2. "Where's the Beef" was a total game changer.

    1. Marge: We saved the newspaper from the day Lisa was born.

      Lisa Simpson: [reading] Mondale to Hart: Where's the beef.

      Bart: Where's the beef? What the hell does that mean?

      Homer: [laughing] Where's the beef. No wonder he won Minnesota.

  3. Are you trying to tell me that "You didn't build that" didn't bring about the election of President Romney?!

  4. The worst meme out there is "meme." The equivalence of a piece of repeated gossip that enters popular culture to actual physical genes is nonsense. But then, much of what people say about genes is also nonsense.

    1. I'm sure that something in your DNA sequence makes you say that.

  5. This is a little questionable. In fact, most all political coverage is pretty much devoid of substance. Like, "etch a sketch" is unimportant but "47 %" is important? Why? What's the difference there?


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