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What Is Good Political Writing?
Marc Solomon

I hope it’s truth in advertising.

Truth is indeed slippery, because we are wary of bias, and well we should be. Writing about politics is a deliberate and tendentious act, no matter what the motivation or goal. With the utmost respect to the other fine works in this quarterly issue, I’m talking nonfiction.

In taking up a pen, a writer should choose one of two sides. The “objective” view has the goal of equipping the reader to make an informed choice about an issue. After all, politics is the societal act of deciding who gets what, when and how. Truly this is a noble goal, solely intent on communicating hard facts and exploring concrete implications. This view is what we used to call “news”. Facts in the media of the past consisted of events. The political service provided in the nineteenth century was printing full transcripts of a politician’s speech. As a forefather of the fireside radio chat or the televised debate, it was arguably quite objective.

The other political writing approach is commentary. Clearly labeled on the editorial page, the author tells you up front, “this is my bias and I hope you like it.” This author’s view of events should be considered filtered, the conclusions potentially self-serving. After all, we always like our own thoughts the best. In this game, the political writer wins by bringing you over to his side. Really though, how often do we change our minds based on a political article? It is hard to imagine this exercise today as anything other than preaching to the choir, or mudslinging for fun and profit. After a columnist has staked out his position, you might expect that his opponents read him solely to probe for weakness or to experience the visceral thrill of righteous anger (“that Ann Coulter is such a…”). The best commentators appeal to reason, even while openly showing their stripes. They exhibit professionalism, poise and class. A favorite among Democrats and Libertarians, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann leads the attack against the current administration with almost classical wordsmithing. His indignation is unquestionable, but he never stoops to name calling or personal assassinations — no matter how much Bill O’Reilly deserves it. Using facts and cause-and-effect analysis, he makes his point. Yet, we still are honestly informed that MSNBC leans to the left of things. That passes the truth test.

But what happens to when our media abandons open disclosure of the latter, and pretends to be the former (“fair and balanced”?). And strangely it is no secret to anyone. What are thinking? And, how did we get here?

I have long felt that the news media took its first modern change for the worse during the Watergate episode. As trivial as the original break-in were, the revealed Nixon cover-up set the media into a feeding frenzy. If we replayed the tape of the nightly news programs of the day, we could actually see the anchormen struggling to explain to themselves and us, how utterly corrupt an administration could be. Would that horror envelop the anchors on Fox today.

That corruption cemented a belief in the minds of news people all over the country: There is no truth. As predicted by Ayn Rand, the suggestion of absolutes, like integrity, became laughable and quaint. Everyone must have feet of clay; you just have to keep digging. Since there is no truth, how could the news report anything but lies? Political events, unlike fires or car chases, just weren’t exciting enough. The quest to find the lie in any fact, any statement, became the mode of political reporting.

The coup de grace to major market news was the concentration of media outlets into the hands of a few billionaires and corporations. Neither of these groups are advocates of anything except their own self interests. As a capitalist myself, it is hard to imagine a nonprofit news organization. Rand in The Fountainhead also warned of the media mogul with any motive, good or evil.

But the Hearst empire started long ago, and we survived, right? Sure, but now all channels of information, print, radio, television, even billboards, can be snatched up and made to sing the same tune. I am all in favor of profit, but there is something unholy about it all. Like air and water, there are certain things which cannot be owned by a small group. I wouldn’t recommend more laws (corruption follows to the same end), but I would like a lot more libertarians and liberals getting interested in owning media. Don’t abandon it to the lowest common denominator!

Since media feels it must compete for attention in order to survive, it follows sadly if a truth does not fit the agenda of a media outlet, then it is not news. War and presidential oral sex get ratings. Budget balancing, hard currency and the abstract idea of freedom just don’t get the blood up.

Last year, there was talk of the Republican congressman from Texas, Ron Paul, running for the Libertarian nomination for President 2008. In a considered change in strategy, Mr. Paul decided not to fight the legal hurdles facing a third-party candidate, and chose to run as a Republican. Just by keeping his label, Congressman Paul has been able to bring more press to the libertarian cause than almost every campaign so far, with the possible exception of Ed Clark in 1980.

So now a Republican who is a card carrying member of the Libertarian party is running for president. His platform is libertarian. Or in his view, it is platform that the Republican Party would have had if it stayed on its Goldwater-Reagan course. Stop nation-building. End the war, now. Open the borders to immigrants willing to pull their own weight. End federal government expansion, interference with state, local and personal affairs. Ultimately, respect the boundaries of the constitution, and begin the work to return the government to solely those powers granted to it. Get rid of everything else. IRS is first on the chopping block. What’s not to like?

Since he is running as a member of one of the “real” parties, he got invited to debates, got on network TV and caused waves. In the South Carolina GOP debate, he bitch-slapped Giuliani on being illiterate on the official analysis of the cause of the 9/11 attack: US interference and presence in the Muslin world. For that remark, and his constant focus on liberty and government reduction, he has become the new “hero” of left-wing commentator Bill Maher. Why? Bill said, “He speaks truth.” Paul walks the talk. He won’t accept a Congressional pension or take a junket. He has never voted for a tax increase. He voted against the Iraq adventure.

As of the summer of 2007 began, Paul’s internet-savvy Libertarian supporters built him a bigger campaign war chest than McCain. More money than the former Republican front-runner.

Now you would think that the combination of debate action, his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington glow, and the money (so important in deciding what’s important these days) would generate some media respect. Sadly, no. In one telling interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, the “reporter” asks Ron what his view of success would be in the election. Ron said, “to win.” To which the unbiased reporter retorted, “Well, that’s not happening.” We watched Ron silently take in the naked view of the appalling arrogance of this would-be kingmaker (or obfuscating procurer for Clinton … so I heard), he summoned his gentleman-Texan manners and said that people thought he was crazy when he ran for congress. He has been elected ten times now. Like his ideas or not, it shouldn’t be crazy to think that a fine honest moral man, not owned by special interests, has no chance in American politics. Isn’t that appalling?

What service does our ‘news’ do us in saving us from ideas that they deem insufficiently newsworthy? Like freedom. Who appointed the talking heads the ability to decide elections?

To decide who you get to think about voting for?
To make the news instead of reporting it?
To play a 5 second sound bite and interpret it for the rest for us?
To constantly change the focus of political discourse from issues to gaming strategy?
To filter all truth via their seven-figure value systems?

Is there any hope?

Thankfully, the other media, the honest ones--like the good people in this publication—have a chance to tell you, America, about the ideas that don’t fit into an ad campaign, serve a corporation, an ego, a religion, a panic.

We have our new hope in the Internet, and the filter again, thankfully, is you.