Monthly Archives: November 2008

Lesiure Time, Pseudo Events and Politics

The emergence of leisure time decreased public interest and involvement at the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th, but leisure time may also have much to do with the current state of politics and journalism in the U.S.

It should come as no surprise that leisure time was a relatively new phenomena at the turn of the century. Just mention America’s old time work ethic and it is likely to conjure up images of farmers who worked in the hot sun from dawn to dusk and laborers who relied on their physical strength and endurance to put bread on the table. These are not the type of folks expected to have a lot of spare time. But as the nature of the nation’s economy changed and inventions lessened the work burden, Americans found themselves with more time on their hands and began to enjoy sports, the arts, and Sunday drives in those new horseless carriages.

In his book, The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928, historian Michael McGerr (1986) explains how political participation declined as Americans relaxed their work ethic and took advantage of new options for leisure and recreation such as vaudeville, sports, movies and radio. “Political theater could not compete with these new diversions as a source of leisure,” he writes (p. 149). “Neither could politics monopolize the attention of men and women lured by the pleasures of consumption.” Indeed, voter turnout peaked just prior to 1900 and then declined steadily in the new century.

Placed in context of the entire book, however, McGerr’s argument is not so simple. Yes, Americans did have more leisure time — and more choices for how to use it — in the 20th Century. In fact, it was just prior to the turn of the century that sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen authored his classic book The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he suggested that the working-class Americans aspired to become part of a new “leisure” class.

But McGerr makes it clear that the hard-working farmers and laborers in the 19th Century also had some free time (p. 29). They just chose to use much of that time at rallies, parades and other political events. In part, this was because they did not have the same variety of options available to Americans in the 20th Century. But in large part, it was due to changes taking place in the worlds of journalism and politics before and after the turn of the century.

According to McGerr, newspapers moved further away from the blatant partisanship they practiced in the 19th Century. Improvements in the technology used to print and distribute newspapers made turning a profit less reliant on political allegiances. With advertising revenue increasing rapidly, publications flourished. No longer a tool for politicians, journalism became a business and a profession in its own right (p. 108). Newspapers also broadened their content to attract more readers. They added stories on sports for men, fashion and cooking for women, and sex and crime to capture people’s attention. The impact on political participation was largely negative. “Once the centerpiece of party journalism, politics became engulfed in a sea of sports, gossip, murder, and scandal,” McGerr explains. “The sense that elections held a special place in public life ebbed away” (p. 126).

In politics, McGreer contends that the strategy for winning elections and amassing power changed too. In the latter part of the 19th Century, political participation was a “spectacle” process that involved rallies, parades and strict party loyalty. But as newspapers became less partisan, voters began to act more independently, forcing political leaders to seek new methods of garnering support (p. 70). These methods, developed and implemented over a period of several election cycles, were the forerunners of many present-day election techniques, among them strong national organizations, voter polls, direct mail appeals and targeted campaign literature. Whereas political participation once had been a process in which voters actively engaged, it became a more passive activity with the advent of what McGerr labels “educational politics.”

These changes in politics and journalism — in conjunction with a variety of factors such as new opportunities and choices for leisure — helped to shape today’s news and political systems and the manner in which they interact.

For example, with politicians no longer in control of newspapers and their content, the field of public relations emerged as a means to obtain news coverage. As sociologist Michael Schudson relates in Discovering the News, A Social History of American Newspapers (1978), although journalists found public relations practitioners distasteful and intrusive, they began to rely on their news releases, events and assistance to produce the content that filled their publications. Schudson cites several estimates which claim that 50 percent or more of the content in The New York Times and other major publications originated from the work of public relations professionals (p. 144)

Government made great use of public relations. As presidents, Theodore Roosevelt set up a press room in the White House and Woodrow Wilson conducted regular press conferences (p. 139). The net effect was mixed and continues to have similar consequences for both the media and government today. “Reporters thus gained a more secure relationship to White House news, but one more formal than it had been, and more easily organized and manipulated by the president or his secretaries,” Schudson writes (pp. 139-140).

Public relations also led to a proliferation of manufactured events that to this day help fill news holes when there is an insufficient volume of hard news. In The Image, A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961), historian Daniel Boorstin explains how these “pseudo-events” are planned and conducted primarily to obtain news coverage. He traces their origins to changes that took place in 19th Century journalism, including the decline in partisan political material, which left newspapers in need of more copy.

Nearly 50 years after Boorstin coined the term, pseudo-events have become commonplace occurrences that take place in the form of news conferences and other planned activities. To cite a recent example, during the 2008 Democratic primary, there was considerable speculation over whether Hillary Clinton’s teary comments prior to the New Hampshire primary were genuine or just a pre-planned and scripted activity designed to obtain sympathetic news coverage.

Boorstin warns that the proliferation of pseudo-events can have a damaging effect on democracy, illustrating his point with an example made all the more relevant by this year’s presidential campaign and the long primary season that preceded it: “Pseudo-events thus lead to emphasis on pseudo-qualifications. Again the self-fulfilling prophecy. If we test Presidential candidates by their talents on TV quiz performances, we will, of course, choose presidents for precisely these qualifications. In a democracy, reality tends to conform to the pseudo-event. Nature imitates art” (pp. 43-44).

Pseudo-events and public relations are but two of the elements that evolved from the changes in journalism and politics around the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th — changes that were sparked in part by the end of “All work and no play” as a work ethic and the availability of more time for leisure and recreation.

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One Campaign Over, A New One Begins

While Barack Obama assembles his cabinet and works on other transition issues, New Jersey already is thinking about another election – the state’s 2009 campaign for Governor.

On the Democratic side, there is little drama. Unless he is offered a cabinet post in the Obama Administration, incumbent Jon Corzine in all likelihood will be on the ballot seeking his second term.

For Republicans, several party members have expressed interest in the Governor’s Office, but U.S. Attorney Chris Christie is regarded as the GOP’s leading candidate. It is easy to see why. As U.S. Attorney, Christie has built a strong reputation cracking down on public corruption, successfully prosecuting some of the most the state’s most powerful political leaders.

All things considered, however, Christie may be better off if he sits out the 2009 race and sets his sites on 2013 instead. Here’s why.

At the moment, New Jersey Democrats are flexing their muscle. Barack Obama carried the state by a comfortable margin on Tuesday and Frank Lautenberg cruised to re-election in the U.S. Senate. Democrats also gained control of a Congressional seat that has been in GOP hands since 1882. And don’t forget that in addition to having a Democrat in the Governor’s Office, the party also holds majorities in both houses of the State Legislature. Add an Obama presidency into the mix and it may not be the most opportune time for a Republican challenger, especially if the Democratic president’s favorability numbers are still riding high next year. Only New Jersey and Virginia will be holding gubernatorial elections next year, so it is conceivable that Obama could come into the Garden State to boost the Democrat cause.

Secondly, at the present time Christie is a one issue candidate and that issue – corruption – seldom resonates with New Jersey voters. It did not work for Tom Kean Jr. when he ran for U.S. Senate two years ago, and Doug Forrester’s attempts to paint Corzine as a candidate created by political bosses failed to take hold in the 2005 gubernatorial campaign. This year, Republicans were unable to win any freeholder seats in Bergen County even though two of the county’s most powerful Democratic leaders were under indictment. Likewise, campaign ads raising questions about John Adler’s connection to a controversial state grant program failed to keep victory out of his hands on Tuesday.

So what does Chris Christie do for the next few years? He should take a lesson from two former Governors.

After Jim Florio lost the 1981 Governor’s election by the narrowest margin in state history, he was considered the frontrunner for the 1985 contest. But with incumbent Governor Tom Kean enjoying great popularity with the New Jersey citizenry, Florio sat out the race and chose instead to run in 1989 when there would be no incumbent on the gubernatorial ballot. The decision proved to be the correct one. He was elected Governor in 1989 with 61 percent of the vote.

There also is a lesson to be learned from Christine Todd Whitman. After she almost upset Bill Bradley in the 1990 U.S. Senate campaign, she used her time wisely to build support for her successful run for Governor in 1993. Hosting a radio talk show (as Whitman did) may not be in the U.S. Attorney’s future, but there are plenty of ways he could make good use of the time between gubernatorial elections.

With a Democratic Administration about to take hold in Washington, D.C., Christie’s days as U.S. attorney are numbered. He can return to private practice with a law firm that will give him the time he needs to sow the seeds for a run in 2013. In the interim, he plays the good soldier in the 2009 gubernatorial race, raising money, delivering surrogate speeches and building goodwill for the GOP standard bearer.

If Corzine wins the election, Christie then has four full years to wage his campaign for Governor. During this time, he can expand his platform beyond the single issue of corruption. He can become a vocal and visible critic of the Democratic Administration, using the populist appeal that has served him well as U.S. Attorney. He can travel around New Jersey and build a stronger statewide identity by speaking at Kiwanis Club luncheons, VFW meetings, county fairs and the like.

From a strategic standpoint, Christie would be at an advantage by not holding a public office where he would be forced to vote on controversial issues. Instead, his public record would be his long list of successful prosecutions as U.S. Attorney. And he gets a few more years to put some distance between a run for Governor and the most serious controversy of his career – the $52 million contract awarded to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s company to monitor t a criminal settlement.

The big question, however, is whether Christie has the patience to wait until 2013. Politics is a world in which people want things now. But Chris Christie has experience at being patient. Among his hobbies and interests outside the office, he is a fan of New York Mets, a team whose last few seasons have tried the patience of even its most ardent followers.

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A Brave Old World?

Last year, I conducted a mini-study on Election Night to learn how quickly the state’s newspapers were posting results online. I found that the newspaper websites were providing the information just as quickly as radio and TV. The results of my mini-study are online in a paper titled Has Election Coverage Entered a Brave New World?

This year, however, I found it much more difficult to navigate the newspaper websites and obtain results. Not only did electronic media such as NJN have the results of the key races faster, the station also had them accurately. For example, long after John Adler had delivered his victory speech in the Third District Congressional election, the Courier Post still had incomplete results on its website indicating Chris Meyers was ahead in the race.

Perhaps we can chalk this up to the cutbacks and layoffs that have the news industry in New Jersey this year. If so, we may have taken a step away from the brave new world that election reporting entered last year.

A Quick Take at the Election Results

For New Jersey, the most significant developments took place at the Congressional level. As anticipated, Barack Obama carried the state by a comfortable margin and Frank Lautenberg cruised to victory. Although coattails from the top of ticket helped Democrats win the third district seat, they failed to materialize in either the fifth or seventh districts. This is a slight warning sign for Democrats who must defend the Governor’s Office and their Assembly seats next year. And it offers a very dim light of hope for Republicans on a rather dark evening for the GOP.

Book Chapter

A chapter I wrote about protest music and the Vietnam War will be included in an upcoming anthology on war, media and communication. The book is scheduled to be published next year by McFarland & Company, Inc., of Jefferson, N.C.

In the chapter, I explain how protest songs functioned as alternative media during the Vietnam War era, raising issues and asking questions that were absent from, or downplayed by, mainstream media. It evolved from a shorter piece I authored a few years ago – The Ability Of Protest Music To Serve As An Alternative Media And Effect Social Change.